Silicon Insider: The Tech Writer's Life

I have been a professional writer now for 31 years, ever since I was a college senior.

That's a number that astonishes me. But the number that really astounds me is that, strictly speaking, I've been unemployed for all but about a dozen of those years.

Who would have thought that not having a job would be the most lucrative and secure career path I could have chosen? Thanks to the digital revolution, even writing has become a business that rewards the entrepreneurial while often punishing those hoping for a safe and secure job.

I was reminded of that today when I got an e-mail announcing a reunion of former San Jose Mercury-News employees. The Merc, as you remember, was recently sold -- twice -- after all but decapitating itself, offering early retirement to its most veteran journalists. That would have included me, if I hadn't quit the paper 25 years ago.

I remember vividly my feeling of utter terror the day I walked out. I had no job prospects, no money, and no place to live (at least not that I could afford). I also remember my fellow reporters commiserating with me, wondering how I would survive the hand-to-mouth existence of freelance writer, and generally assuming that I'd end up as yet another PR person, a hack turned flack.

And I did write my share of press releases in the years that followed. But I also learned how to make use of the latest technological tools to survive in a rapidly changing profession. Many of my peers never did -- which is why, jobless, I've probably enjoyed more career security than most of them. Even now, many still cling to jobs in dying newspapers in the hope that even if the paper doesn't turn around, they can at least hang on until retirement. It must be a helluva way to close out a long career.

If the Merc invitation has made me nostalgic, another milestone last week has made me positively autumnal: I finished my new book.

Completing a book always induces a certain amount of depression You start out full of high hopes for riches and fame, and by about page 300 you both hate the book, doubt your own ability, and predict the work will be both a critical and financial failure. Your children will starve, you will lose the house, and no publisher will ever touch you again. When you type that last period it is hard to feel anything at all beyond the resigned weariness of someone climbing a mountain who unexpectedly finds the path ahead level … and realizes he has reached the summit.

This time, as usual, there were no trumpet fanfares or singing cherubim. I finished the manuscript, hit the "save" button on my laptop, played a game of computer solitaire, and went to bed. It was 2 a.m.

I got up at 7 a.m. to take my 15-year-old and the girl next door to high school, then returned home to take my 10-year-old to elementary school. At some point in all of this, I mentioned that I had finished the book. "That's great, Dad," said my kids and turned up the car radio. "Oh good," said my wife when I got home and told her. "Let's get out the contract and see when you get paid next."

Thirty one years ago, I used to have -- like most budding writers -- romantic illusions about a life of letters. I dreamed of creating prose so deathless that it would be instantly labeled a "classic," that it would make people weep with its power, and that strangers would stop me on the street to shake my hand and thank me for my work.

There would be a shelf full of leather-bound volumes bearing my name in gold leaf. And the next generation of budding young writers would read my words and pray that one day they, too, could be like me.

Needless to say, the reality is a whole lot different. Any job you do for 30 years is going to be pretty much stripped of most illusions. I've written one book that has been called a classic -- and made so little money from that I would have been better off working at McDonald's.

People have told me they cried at some of my essays, though I learned a long time ago that maudlin sentimentality in writing is a cheap parlor trick.

As for being assaulted by strangers (which usually happens with television, not books), it typically takes place when you are buying gin or jock-itch spray at Safeway and is a awkward encounter for everyone concerned.

As for the shelf full of books, I've got that now -- with ugly and fraying dust jackets and all of the bad binding and cheap paper modern publishing can produce.

When people gush about how wonderful it must be to have a writing career, I try to tell them the truth: that being a writer is like being a bricklayer. Individual words are like bricks, and the basic part of the job is to lay those bricks down by the thousands in a solid and consistent manner.

Once you get good at it, you can build a pretty sturdy wall. And if you've got the time and the inclination, you can get fancy and build a pretty nice structure. But to get to that point, you have to be able to work fast and neat, and get paid for your efforts.

An old professor of mine once told me to skip journalism school or an MFA in creative writing and just start writing for money -- that it was the best training there was to become a writer. He also told me that when I had written 1 million words for pay that I would finally be a real professional writer.

I believed him on the first (mostly because I was lazy and my MBA had almost killed me) but thought he was crazy on the second. In fact, sometime around the end of my first book, after nine years, a couple hundred press releases for Hewlett-Packard and an equal number of stories and features for the Merc and New York Times, I crossed the million word mark, and at last started to know what I was doing. Without knowing it, I had completed my apprenticeship and was now a journeyman writer.

I've probably written 5 million words since -- not much of it particularly immortal, but not much sheer crap either. And, like a bricklayer, I've often been only as good as my tools. A comparison between my first book and newest (and 13th) book underscores this, and the importance of technology in a modern writing career.

For my inaugural book, a 1984 history of Silicon Valley called "The Big Score," I burned up so much time gathering and transcribing interviews with audiocassettes, and burned up so much money down at the local library photocopying articles out of magazines, that I didn't even start writing until after the date the book was due at the publishers -- and after my minuscule advance had already been spent.

As a result, between Nov. 1, 1983 and Jan. 17, 1984, I wrote on average 15 hours per day, slept on the floor of my office, and pretty much lost my mind.

The manuscript spun out of control -- what was to be a 150,000 word book grew to about 600,000. If published at that length, it would have been a thousand-page text. I made factual errors all over the place, screwed up the footnotes, and one horrible night, after I accidentally erased 10,000 words, my wife found me at 3 a.m. in the hallway banging my head against the wall.

I was 29 years old.

My new book, which will be called "Bill and Dave" and is the story of Hewlett and Packard (closing yet another circle), has been an entirely different experience -- one that shows not only my greater experience, but also the power of the new technology.

After five months of research, most of it on the Web, printing out hundreds of pages of reference information at a fraction of the cost of photocopying those articles two decades ago (and without 40 trips to the library), I sat down to write on Jan. 6 of this year. For the next six months, I averaged 1,000 words per day, every day.

Thus, the book I finished last week is approximately 170,000 words. My latest version of Microsoft Word enabled me to create footnotes instantly, and renumber them as needed -- a far cry from the word processing software on my old Apple III.

Automatic file backup also spared me from damaging my head this time (at this point I need all the brain cells I've got left). And whenever I needed a quick fact check, I was able to hop on the Web, Google the fact, get the answer and get right back to typing. For quotations, I could just copy the quote and drag it over to the manuscript, reducing the chance of one of those transcription errors that really tick off the person being quoted.

And, because I wrote the book on a laptop, I was able to keep working on a ski trip with my family, while in England, in Oregon, on planes, in bed. … Whatever it took to keep up the pace. And with 10 times the advance of "The Big Score" -- another advantage of an established career -- I (and my family) could actually afford to eat.

When I finished "The Big Score," I was broke. Within days, I collapsed, got sick, all but missed my 30th birthday, and took weeks to recover (the Scotch and 25-cent hamburgers didn't help).

When I finished "Bill and Dave" last week, I slept in the next morning, did some other writing, and went off to manage a Little League game. Other than some new keyboard calluses on my wrist, I feel about the way I did when I started the book. This Sunday I'm off to Africa with the family for six weeks.

Will "Bill and Dave" be a better book than "The Big Score"? I'll let you decide next April. But I'm long past the myth that you have to suffer horribly for your art -- no more than a bricklayer needs to whack himself on the side of the head with a brick before he mortars it down on a wall. Live at a reasonable pace, die at a reasonable age, and cash your royalty checks in-between -- that's my new mantra.

This Friday, after running a spelling and grammar check, and using the Web to fill in a few TKs, I'll e-mail the entire file to my publisher, Adrian Zackheim at Doubleday (who, closing another circle, also published "The Big Score"). There, at the publisher, what took only a few seconds for me to transmit over broadband into the corporate server, will then -- for some unknown reason -- take nine months to get to bookstores.

Why that is so is a story for another time; other than to say that I'm expecting one day soon to get invitations from the various publishers in my career, much the same as the one I just got from the survivors of the Knight-Ridder era San Jose Mercury-News.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone, once called the Boswell of Silicon Valley, is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is best-known as the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public-television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.