PCW Plus "Langford" Columns, 1986

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Column 1, 8000 Plus 1, October 1986


Well, it's the old, old story: like 5,271,009 people in the Home Counties alone, I bought a PCW 8256. My motives were half noble and pure (I'm a professional writer), half hopelessly corrupt: I also prey on unfortunate punters by flogging them software. Your editor thinks my jottings must therefore be deeply interesting to you all. Little does he know.

The other day I was slumming in an IBM PC magazine, where I found the fascinating news that Amstrad PCW systems have met with a `lukewarm response'. To translate this you need to know the subtle linguistic codes used by IBM enthusiasts. If you buy an IBM PC, that's a ringing declaration of total commitment. If you buy something else, it's a lukewarm response.

Back in reality, a mate of mine at Victor Gollancz, the publishers, reports that although the number of truly terrible magazines he receives hasn't altered that much there's been a distinct change of appearance. Time was when all too many first novels were handwritten in blue crayon in exercise books. Now fully 25% of them are LocoScripted in that unmistakable Joyce typeface. [Newer readers may need to be reminded that before the coming of the PCW 9512 and of LocoScript 2, all PCW print-outs looked exactly the same.]

Once upon a time it was a treasured piece of publishing folklore that a beautifully printed submission with multiple type-styles and straight margins at both left and right, exquisitely bound in tooled goatskin with rich puce endpapers ... was never any good. But since the coming of cheapo word-processing, a `perfect' typescript is no longer evidence of pointless obsession. The twiddly bits have ceased to be a problem; reprinting a corrected page is a doddle. There are, however, still points to watch.

Don't overdo it. Avoid hordes of different typestyles. If a long passage has to go in italics, it's probably OK to print it that way (as a reminder to typesetters some professionals also write `italics' in the margin). However, using LocoScript italics for odd emphasized words may be a mistake, depending on the publisher. Copy-editors in traditional firms will hate you because they'll need to underline all those words for the typesetters -- better that you save them the trouble. Copy-editors in modern dynamic firms may well be able to transfer your work straight from disk, and will prefer the italics to be italics from the start. Ask first.

In any case, avoid justified right-hand margins; most editors feel these look subtly naff in typescripts.

Don't forget to use the handy `header' facility to number every page. At top right is a good place. Include your surname and a short form of the book's title, too. Almost no extra work is involved, and you'll have insured against the day when some drunken editor accidentally drops and shuffles the pages of your masterpiece with several other identically LocoScripted (but of course deeply inferior) submissions.

Don't muck around with any gadget, device or process which glues, screws, wires, welds or staples hundreds of MS pages into a single `book'. Publishers hate the massive objects: they're awkward to handle and usually get ripped apart for convenience (as will in any case happen at the typesetting stage, unless you can persuade them to set directly from your disks). Loose A4 pages in a box are quite acceptable; it's permissible to use staples of paperclips at top left to fasten together individual chapters or sections.

Don't, after spending all this loot on your word processor, skimp on the paper. If you try to save paper by printing at 17 characters per inch, or ribbon by sticking to `draft' quality, your editor will enclose a hefty bill from his optician along with the rejection slip. (High quality print with 10 or at most 12 characters per inch, please.) If you don't double-space your print-out with +LS2 it probably won't even be read. Ditto if you're such a miser as to leave only a quarter-inch margin all round the edge: allow lots of space for editors to make their cryptic marginal notes, such as `By George, what a work of genius!'

And finally, use paper with a certain amount of moral fibre. Gossamer-thin, electronically-tested stuff which wilts and slithers all over the editorial desk may not ensure rejection, but can tip the balance when someone is debating whether to finish your MS or go to the pub....

Oddity of the Month

Try this LocoScript experiment: hold down the Shift key and type `OK'. No, really fast, so the O key hasn't quite risen before the K goes down. A spurious Return magically appears between the two letters. As a rapid typist, I wondered for a while whether LocoScript had a built-in style checker and was conditioning men to type the preferred `Okay' or perhaps `Yea, verily, forsooth.' However, it happens in CP/M and other programs too: there is apparently a bug in the PCW's keyboard scanning. Not quite as bad as the time when I was trying to run a Prestel SF database from a Commodore 64 and couldn't speed-type `SF' -- it persistently came out as `SXF'....

Column 2, 8000 Plus 2, November 1986


Wearing my other hat as an SF reviewer, I waste my days reading lots of allegedly imaginative new books featuring computers. The megacomputers of SF have several irritating points in common:

They all work, and never beep at you for failing to slot in the proper `start of day' disk with the hidden LocoScript program files. (By the way, you can save 4k of space on your LocoScript start-of-day disk by displaying -- with f8 `Show Hidden' -- and then erasing the file MAIL232.COM, a communications program which is no earthly use until you buy an interface box. Keep the master copy....) They work fast, depriving you of the fun of racing trained slugs along a measured 800 metres while LocoScript chugs to the end of a document. Most SF computers talk or take dictation, or can even be plugged directly into so that your thoughts flash straight to the screen ... either way there's no trouble with coarse, mundane keyboards.

Back in reality we have the PCW, which at least doesn't devour its users' brains (though my wife isn't so sure), take over the universe (even if they currently seem to be outbreeding mere humans) or precipitate nuclear holocaust (I know both CND and Greenpeace people with Amstrads, but they're oddly rare in both the Pentagon and the Kremlin).

The worst SF threat that the beasties pose is the Creeping White Peril, subtitled the Paper That Ate Manhattan. You buy the gadgetry with vague thoughts of that high-tech catchphrase `the paperless office'. A week later you're entirely surrounded by crumpled manuals and early drafts ... all around the monitor are stuck reminders like `Press Extra 4 for ¢ sign' (Loco 2: Shift Alt 4) or `to alter page numbers don't press f6 for Pages but f7, Enter, long pause, f7, f8' (Loco 2: don't press f5 but f1, Enter, f5) ... the floor is a sea of discarded sheets because brilliant on-screen sentences can lose their shine when printed, forcing you to redo page after page....

You do need to cultivate an eye for the screen. Publishers' readers train their eye in a different way: they're the poor sods who first sift through submitted typescripts in search of some glimmer of literary virtue, and the task is complicated by the psychological fact that in mere typescript nothing looks as good as Real Print. On the screen we have the reverse problem, maybe because we're conditioned by all that SF about infallible super-machines: those neat green words look so convincing that your eye skips clean over the typpong errors and warped; punctuation. Learn to be distrustful.

Some good news on the monitor front is that despite horror stories of deadly screen radiations which turn you into a low-budget special effect from Doctor Who, current researches indicate that computer monitors are somewhat less dangerously radioactive than houses or people. Must tell this to the software customer who's convinced his screen emits cosmic rays, making him nauseated whenever he sits down to work. I used to get the same sensation from mere pencil and paper -- the central problem wasn't so much the dread A4-radiation and HB-particles as working for the civil service. A letter of resignation produced a complete cure. Glory, glory.

There are two valid worries about the PCW monitor. One is very general: if you fret about evil effects of working with the green screen, the mere stress of worrying can itself be bad for you -- so don't. (Take my elixir and you'll live forever, provided you never once think of the word `hippopotamus'.) Eyestrain is the more specific worry. You should try to stop staring at the screen for at least ten minutes of each hour, which isn't difficult if you regularly save your files to disk so that LocoScript can do its famous simulation of an interglacial period.

Researching kindness to my own eyes, I find that my PCW display looks most readable with the brightness at absolute minimum, and I wouldn't mind turning it down further: maybe one day I'll invalidate my guarantee by soldering in a resistor. If anyone out there beats me to this bit of illicit tinkering, do give me a call from the intensive care ward and say how you got on.

Meanwhile, that horrid coughing offstage is your editor reminding me to mention writing. Last month I revealed some open secrets about LocoScripting submissions to publishers: more follows, but do please remember one point. Every new writer has to confront the embarrassing fact that no matter how many tips on presentation you amass, you will eventually have to display some actual talent.

The virtue of word processing is to mechanize the boring bits, so it's worth setting up a standard front page for your typescripts. Because the most tedious things to type are those known by heart, like your own address, it's horrifyingly easy to me off-putting mistakes right there on the covering sheet. Avoid existential Angst by using the TEMPLATE.STD facility.

You can stick lots of boilerplate material into this LocoScript `template' document ... everything, in fact, that you want to have appear in each new document. (Different LocoScript disks and document groups can use different TEMPLATE.STD files or none at all.) A header, for example, a base layout with double-spaced lines (+LS2) and a starting page number. I usually specify no header at all for the first page (the cover sheet) and the magical word `Langford' plus a page number as a right-justified header for following pages. For the cover sheet I set the page number at zero: this isn't really part of the MS, but carries information for the editor (it'll be ripped off before typesetting).

If you specify your cover sheet and part of page one in TEMPLATE.STD for your `stories and articles' group, there's no need to lay it out each time: it'll be popped automatically into each brand-new document. A rough suggestion based on my own slovenly habits is to start with ten or so Returns to help centre the text vertically on the cover sheet (you can tinker with this later). Then enter something like the following, centred or spaced out as you see fit:


Author's Name (i.e. yours)

x000 words approx

Not previously published

Address line 1
Address line 2 (etc)


TITLE again

Author's Name

... and after a blank line or so, the text begins. As you start a new document you can add the appropriate title; when you've finished and counted the words, stick the figure into its slot on the cover sheet.

Explanations and comments follow. Word counts are vital for short pieces; round them to the nearest 10 or 50 words (100 or 500 for full books), since `exactly 5751 words' is often regarded with suspicion as indicating an obsessive amateur. If you have a literary agent, his/her address can follow or replace your own. The point of the blank lines before the title on page one is that editors like to have this space to scribble typesetters' directions -- how the title is to appear, etc. Some people repeat their address on page one, but the editor will only have to cross it out come typesetting time.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to get your text into print and to have it bear some resemblance to what you actually wrote. Reduce the work editors have to do ... once they get started on a script that needs extensive marking-up and correction, they find it fatally easy to carry on and fiddle around `improving' your text. And watch out for ambiguities. For example, liberal use of soft hyphens can tidy the right-hand margin -- but your editor will hit you in the mouth, having stayed up all night deciding whether each hyphen is meant to be there or should be closed up when the text is rearranged.

What about dashes? One isolated hyphen can get accidentally joined to an adjacent word and give the illusion that hyphenation was intended. It's wiser to type a dash as two consecutive hyphens. (Some writers prefer three.) But during relaying, two `ordinary' hyphens can break apart at a line-end and look silly ... so use `hard' hyphens, which stick together, although LocoScript makes them a bore to type. You might think it worth making a pair of hard hyphens into a `standard phrase' to be entered with, say, Paste and D-for-dash.

Questions? Violent disagreements? Letter bombs? Send them to our editor, who is delighted to forward such things after searching the envelopes for money.

Column 3, 8000 Plus 3, December 1986


One pleasant surprise about the PCW on its first release was the keyboard. Thanks to Clive Sinclair, we all thought that typing on a low-cost machine had to feel like fingering a plastic packet of salami (ZX80/81) or squashing small unfortunate sea anemones (Spectrum). Though it's a bit rattly, the 8256/8512 keyboard has a better touch than certain far more expensive computers -- even when you go upmarket, typing can still feel like pushing down dead piano keys (Apricot F series) or clicking tiny retractable ballpens (all too many IBM compatibles).

The big question staring us in the eyeball today is this: since the keyboard takes more of a bashing from your rough, brutal hands than any other part of the PCW, just how long can you expect it to last? I consulted an early user who has thumped his 8256 a lot more than most: John Grant reckons he's hammered out half a million words of finished text in the first year, including a whopping encyclopaedia of Walt Disney characters. If I mention that he has also collaborated with me on the very wonderful `ultimate disaster novel' Earthdoom! (out next year from Grafton, keep your eye on the Booker Prize list), your editor will get upset at this naked self-promotion and cut me off in mid

Well, this is what famous pseudonym Grant reported. As he came up to the half-million-word mark, two alarming things could be seen happening to his keyboard. The letters on the keys were visibly wearing off (sighs of relief and `Is that all?' from smug touch-typists), while the keys themselves had a nasty tendency to clog and stick. Imagine all the horrible gunge and dandruff and things from under your fingernails that must collect there over a period of time....

So our hero went round to his dealers, Lasky's, and asked their sage advice. `No trouble,' said the resourceful Lasky's man. `The solution's dead simple. You just have to buy a complete new PCW8256 system, that's all.'

This being a family magazine, I am not going to record what Mr Grant replied.

When the apoplexy had died down a bit, he got in touch with compassionate, caring Amstrad themselves. `Push off,' they told him soothingly. `We don't deal with the (shudder) general public.' Eventually, worn down by threats and tireless whimpering, they parted with the secret inside information. What you need to do is go to a Real Computer Shop, the sort that doesn't also sell hi-fi systems and cameras, and grovel on your bended knees. (Sometimes this doesn't work and you have to shout as well.) Real Computer Shops are the only people who can order spares from Amstrad ... at least, until some wicked independent manufacturer breaks the unwritten rules by producing its own version for direct sale to scum like you and me and John Grant.

How did it work out? Brace yourself: the price quoted for a new keyboard was a chilly £100. Some time later (i.e. too late) our hero found he could also have the old keyboard repaired, serviced, and generally souped up for £50. After thinking about it, increasing his mortgage, etc., he decided to opt for this as well. It might sound like extravagance, but a professional author can't be caught without a keyboard, any more than a proofreader could get along without the obligatory dark glasses and white stick.

After relating this awesome chronicle, `John Grant' added that he was investigating a company called Saga which reportedly sells stick-on letters to replace those worn off Spectrum keys by unwholesome practices. `Seems they're OK on the Amstrad, except of course you don't get the special words for the function keys. I wouldn't be surprised if the company diversified into Amstrad stickers.....'

There are a couple of ways of looking at this. One is that it gives you something to aim for: only when your keyboard fades and disintegrates will you know that you've equalled the output of a real (if somewhat workaholic) author! Alternatively, you can bask in smugness at the thought that at least you got your first keyboard thrown in as part of the package. Incredibly enough, IBM buyers have in the past discovered too late that the keyboard -- as well as the monitor and the operating system -- was an expensive `extra'. There was a standing joke about the IBM staff canteen where lunch cost a mere £1.50, plus a pound for the knife, and another for the fork, and another for the plate....

The thing which really worries the more pessimistic PCW users isn't the keyboard (you can always type very lightly and invest in a few sets of the above-mentioned stickers) but the CF2 disks. The fact that they cost three times as much as the 3 1/2 " disks for my other computer (and have only half the capacity, unless you own a Drive B) can be lived with. But it seems to be accepted that 3" disks are kept in production almost solely by the Amstrad market. Will Alan Sugar sandbag his existing users -- as he's done before, in other ways for other computers -- by abandoning 3" drives altogether? Will the disks then become unobtainable? Is the Pope a Scientologist? Rather than make up science-fictional answers to all those queries, I'll merely suggest that it mightn't be a bad idea to stock your fallout shelter with a few spare boxes of CF2s from some discount merchant.

Of course, you may say, you can always use disks again and again. I'm terrifically nervous of doing so: after mere years of word-processing, I know all too well that almost any document may be needed again. For example, a while ago I wrote a short story, titivated it, put in lots of rude bits, cut some of them out again, printed the whole thing, and sold it. I had a clean master copy of the text (photocopied from the print-out -- quicker, and cheaper in the long term, than wearing out the PCW printer and ribbon by doing two), plus spare copies of the magazine where it reappeared. A clear case for re-use of disk space! Then a Swedish magazine asked to reprint the story, but there was a snag -- could I edit it down by 20% to fit their space restrictions? Which meant keying it in again....

(Also: master copies get spoilt and need reprinting; and from time to time one has second thoughts even about one's own golden prose; and the magazine version is never quite what one wrote; and I've even incorporated short stories into novels. In each case, keeping a copy on disk saves a lot of work.)

In short -- according to me, wiping and re-using disks is false economy for any serious writer. Stop the nasty practice at once, or your participles will fall off! There is no truth in the rumour that I've just bought a controlling interest in a major CF2 disk distribution company....

Keyboard Scans Revisited

This column's only devoted fan Andy Lusis sends congratulations on the `major, ground-breaking report' two issues back -- concerning funny effects when you hold down Shift and O and then type K. `Extensive research on my part has revealed that pressing K before O does the same ... other effects can be produced by pressing CD/DC and KL/LK with Shift in a similar manner. only time will tell what other marvels have yet to be discovered.' For example, when I quickly typed the word Shift just then, it came out as SHIF>T ... the whole upper-case keyboard is riddled with these traps. Try AZ or ZA, which at first gave me a moment of sheer panic -- had the PCW hung up? (One consolation is that these glitches happen only with Shift held down -- not with Shift Lock set.)

The New Mathematics

Though I don't usually dabble in BASIC, I couldn't help noticing a lovely revelation in Another (Official) Magazine, which asks you to `consider the following very simple program:

20 FRED = 30 ... When RUN, all this program does is to make the variable FRED equal to 37.'

Clearly BASIC programming is more subtle and complex than I thought.

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