For those of you interested in the kind of writing in this novel I’ve written, I have decided to publish a free excerpt. This one is from the middle of the book, but it should be easy to understand what’s going on. It encapsulates all the major themes of the novel: the starkness and inhospitality of the desert, Jack Dinero’s strained relationship with his parents, and the hypnotic pull of the cult, personified in the seductively adorkable personality of Brianna Bubger. I pulled from the middle of the book because you can read the first three chapters in the Kindle preview. If you like what you’ve read so far, check out the Amazon page and/or consider subscribing to this blog for more dispatches from Creosote Canyon and S. P. Hoctor.(more…)
Re-evaluating my pencils
Well, my total worldwide sales figures for Your New Church Family have skyrocketed to… six. I have now sold six copies of the novel I promised my younger self I’d write all the way back in 2015. It’s mutated quite a lot in the last nine years, but I think my 2015 younger self would be proud, even if my 1992 younger self, the one who drew those depressing and violent cartoons that the novel is extremely loosely based on, would seriously question why there wasn’t enough punching and explosions in it.
(1992 Me would probably also be a little disappointed that I changed the characters around from his thinly veiled depictions of guys he wished were his friend and girls he had crushes on, and got rid of most, if not all, the references to Beverly Hills, 90210 and The Simpsons. Sorry, lonely teenage rebel, I don’t want to be sued or harangued by former classmates asking if such and such character was based on them. It’s bad enough I named some minor characters after random monster names swiped from the manual of Super Metroid which might actually be trademarked by Nintendo.)
The funny thing about all of this is that, looking back at all the old posts on this blog, I realize I was far more concerned with what software and hardware to write my book with. I was obsessed with the idea that I needed to find the right ancient computer and the right archaic DOS word processor to get my brain into the writing zone. And indeed, I spent far too much time and money tinkering with old, limited laptops to strip them down to the bare distraction-free essentials, only to be needlessly distracted by the complexities and frustrations of running Linux and FreeDOS on old, limited hardware. Then I tried the fabled AlphaSmart portable word processor, which worked great for a while, but I ended up getting frustrated by being unable to adjust the dim, pocket-calculator-esque screen to a viewing angle suitable for an adult and typing on a crappy keyboard made to be banged on by children. Then I replaced that setup with a Bluetooth keyboard and an old Android phone with disabled networking. It seemed like unless I shilled out megabucks for the Freewrite e-ink word processor, I was never going to find something that I could put in a backpack, take anywhere, and meet all of my writer’s use cases.
But you know what I discovered that got me to writing? That worked when all of these other technological solutions failed me? That I could do anywhere, at any time, on any screen or scrap of paper I had lying around?
All I had to do… was…
JUST. FUCKING. WRITE.
That’s all it took, but it took many years of starts and stops and restarts and dealing with work and personal trauma and a move across the state and a nervous breakdown brought on by a toxic work environment to figure that out. I just had to stop procrastinating, put down the video games and endless YouTube videos I was using to distract myself from my inner turmoil, and let my inner turmoil out on the page. And you know what word processor I used to complete my magnum opus? It wasn’t from the 1980s nor was it an esoteric Unix text editor made for people with five hands and Ghost in the Shell typing fingers. It was Microsoft Word. I used what I had available. Every work, school, and library computer I’ve ever used had a copy, and it was so easy to sync the drafts to OneDrive. I stopped worrying and learned to love the Evil Empire. It embraced me, I was extended… but I have not been extinguished.
I did switch to LibreOffice near the end, however, mostly because it comes with a built-in EPUB exporter, and a PDF exporter that works so much better than Word’s. I spent all weekend messing around with the manuscript document trying to get it to fit Amazon’s margin and font requirements, and it spent forever to do what I needed to do in Word, but LibreOffice Writer just did it in like three clicks. I also made a perfectly passable even if completely amateurish book cover in GIMP, the open-source equivalent to Photoshop. I am aware that none of these programs are substitutes for professional typesetting and desktop publishing solutions but for a first self-published novel by a completely unknown author I doubt anyone will notice too much. The important thing is that it’s up now, and I am already starting on reviving and rewriting the sequel to this book I started during the pandemic. I’m sure 2020 me will be happy I no longer have to write around the reality about everyone having to wear masks and being unable to leave the house.
I can’t believe it’s been six years, but I’m finally published
After all this time, I have finally decided to dust off this ancient blog and reopen it to the world. It’s been so long. It seems like all of my projects end up like this–I get super-enthusiastic about them for a while, but then my interest wanes or the chaos in my life swallows up all my attention, and next thing I know, they’ve been confined to the dustbin of my life. All my projects except one, that is. That’s the reason I’m writing in my blog again now. My novel is complete. After almost a decade I have a thing I can put on Amazon and sell to the world. Here it is, Your New Church Family by S. P. Hoctor.
(And I’ve already made a sale! I’m a sold author!)
The book has undergone numerous changes since I started writing a book to tie together and modernize the sketchy characters and vague storylines I created for my comic strip back in high school. The book has even undergone several revisions since I completed the first draft. I’m looking at this original draft I posted back in 2017 and I’m kind of shocked at the violence and darkness and bleakness this original vision presented. In the original draft, Jack’s mother died a horrific death on the very first page, Jack’s father was even more cynical and outright racist than the person he would eventually become, and when Jack enters the desert cabin, he’s as much afraid of being eaten by rats and wolves as he is being away from cell service and Starbucks. Let’s just say I had some issues I was working out back then.
The original plot was going to be a 1980s teen-movie-esque story where Jack struggled to fit in with the locals of Creosote Canyon, punching out the high school’s bullies and dating the bullies’ girlfriends with furious vengeance only to find himself in hot water with the bullies’ parents, the rich elites who held the town of Creosote Canyon under an iron grip. Run out of town on a rail, Jack and his new friends, comprised of Dylan, the beached surfer dude, Carl, a sullen, moody super-genius who has listened to far too much Jordan Peterson, and Heather, the sassy and street-wise girl who had formerly dated the head bully, were to head back to Jack’s home city to take on the drug lords/real estate investors/tech industry bros/crooked cops/secret society who either murdered Jack’s mom or drove her to suicide. I hadn’t gotten far enough to figure out who the villains were intended to be. It was for the best though, as my spouse pointed out to me exactly how cliche and dark this story was shaping into.
Then my spouse told me, “Don’t kill off the mom. That’s the most stereotypical thing in any story. If you don’t want her around, find another way to move her away from the action.”
Around the mid-2010s as you know, it was a tumultuous time for the LGBT community, with gay marriage bans being overturned in 2014 and the cultural backlash of homophobia and bigotry that ensued from this decision by the Religious Right that helped Donald Trump get elected in 2016. I realized that if you wanted to separate family members from each other, the easiest way to do it was to introduce religion into the equation. So I introduced the story conceit of Jack’s parents being divorced, and Jack’s mom having taken up with a conservative megachurch pastor and becoming so blinded by evangelical rhetoric that she would ship her son off to his drunken, deadbeat father living in an unsafe cabin in a no-name town in Arizona sooner than deal with the fact that he was LGBT. I realize this is a bad look for her, seeing as she is the only major Hispanic character other than Jack himself, but I left it vague enough that there might be a redemption arc in the future.
And having the love of his mother, the support of his online communities, and his entire religious footing–one foot in the Catholicism he was born in, and one half in the evangelical Protestantism his mother and stepdad were a part of–stripped away from Jack at such a young age, it made total sense that Jack would need to find another religion in order to fill the holes these left behind. The Church of Universal Love and Truth started out as just a quirky but mostly harmless sect that appeared in a few chapters of the first draft. It borrowed heavily from the church I was a part of growing up in a small town in the Southwest. Jack would start going to the church to impress Heather, get far too involved in it for his own good, and Alex would break him out of it before Jack was shipped off to become a missionary in Tora Bora or wherever. Eventually the church and this sideplot became bigger and bigger until it became the entire story. I had to figure out what would appeal so much to Jack to make him sacrifice his entire previous morals and belief systems, and the dark secrets behind the placid smiles and wide-eyed stares of the parishioners that would compel him to make the decisions he would make at the end of the book.
The Church and its numerous tendrils would mutate everything it came into contact with. What changed most of all were Jack’s friends, who were no longer the archetypes from my original comics I drew inspiration from. Dylan Decards was still the same sweet, slightly befuddled Pauly Shore-esque surfer dude character from the comics, but now he was a troubled church-going teen torn between his life in the church and the mandates of his own heart. He also gained an entire family, with similar punny “card” names, each of whom were also victims of the religion in their own ways. Heather Doyle, the sassy street-wise girl based on a girl I had a crush on in high school, got split into two sisters. The sister named Heather Bubger, a rebellious teen dating the football team’s quarterback under the pretense of “converting” him to the faith someday, eventually would get her parts cut out so much so that I almost considered removing her entirely, but as I have plans for her in the sequel, I opted against it. The other sister, a deeply devout girl named Brianna Bubger, became Jack’s primary love interest–and one of the story’s main antagonists.
Carl Delaney, a stereotypical nerd character, was the most changed of all of them. He was completely reworked into Carrie A. E. Layson, a super-genius born with numerous birth defects who solved the many problems of their life by covering their body with jury-rigged home-made cybernetic enhancements. In addition, in honor of my spouse, I made them nonbinary and transgender. They were placed in the novel as a sort of lesson to Jack on self-sufficiency and expressing one’s independence, and to reinforce a theme of using technology to redefine your place in society, but they quickly became the breakout character of the whole novel (according to my beta readers, at least.) And yes, Carrie Layson is kind of a punny take on “kyrie eleison,” and the name was originally meant for the religious, pious, and meek character who would eventually become Brianna, but I liked the name so much I gave it to the atheist, outspoken, and mercilessly sarcastic cyborg.
Numerous subplots from the original draft were excised, including one where Jack joins the football team, and he and Carrie bond while rebuilding the high school’s scorpion mascot costume into a cool cybernetic power suit that helps Jack fight bullies. I also removed about five pages of travelogue description concerning Creosote Canyon and the fictional region of Arizona, Chozodia County, that the story is located in. I’m sure people will figure out that the story is set in a small desert town well enough. But I think what’s left is a pretty darn good story.
I will continue to post here while I figure out how to market this book and find its audience. Please stay tuned. And if you want to read more, head on over to Your New Church Family’s Amazon marketplace page to pick up your own copy for Kindle today.
Thinking out loud
Looking at my stats, it seems like my random articles on obsolete technology, like when I discussed WordPerfect 5.1 in Rearranging My Pencils and the games that pushed the Atari 2600 to its limits (parts 1 and 2) have been getting an amazing amount of hits, years after I wrote them. Meanwhile, few if any people have read the excerpt to my novel. I’m not criticizing anyone for not reading it–it’s 9,000 words long and it isn’t even a complete story. I’m just thinking that maybe there’s more demand for informative, entertaining, concise pieces on the history of computing and video games than there is for yet another coming-of-age novel. I’m not giving up on Sullen Teenage Rebels–I’m 120,000 words too late to just dump the project completely–but I am definitely looking into writing more stuff about the games that time forgot. Thanks for listening.
An excerpt from my upcoming novel: Sullen Teenage Rebels by S. P. Hoctor
I thought you all might enjoy a small sample of the thing I have been working on for the last 3 years. This is just the beginning though. There is so much I have to go through in order to produce a quality draft. I have also decided on a pen name: S. P. Hoctor. Those of you from the Grand Canyon or Williams, AZ area will probably figure out the significance of the name, and if you aren’t, it’s an intersection just north of Williams: “Espee Rd” turns into “Hoctor Rd” at State Route 64. But I digress. Please enjoy.
[Trigger warning: suicide, drug use, violence, cactus]
This is just a quick note to let you all know, well, if anyone’s still out there, that a) I’m not dead, and b) the reason I haven’t written anything here in two years–well, it complicated, so I’ll just say that I am 80,000 words into writing a first novel that I hope to have the first draft completed by the end of this year. It’s tentatively titled Sullen Teenage Rebels, and it’s the story of an inner-city youth forced to move to a small town in the Mojave Desert and learn the ropes of the culture, while dealing with bullies, bigots, cougars (of both varieties), zealous church people, mental illness, and the deadly cabal of shape-shifting lizard people secretly controlling the world. It’s getting real now–I just reserved the domain name sullenteenagerebels.com (although now it just redirects back to this blog.) In the upcoming weeks I’ll be developing that site and posting story excerpts, some of the old “Sullen Teenage Rebels” comics, and other things to promote the novel. Stay tuned.
Kingdom of Loathing – A Review is You!
Kingdom of Loathing is extremely awesome for five reasons:
(The character selection screen when you first join the game. No generic fighters or clerics here.)
2) It’s funny. Not only does it not take itself seriously, it pokes fun at everything and everyone. You’ll not only see parodies of RPG tropes and monsters, but references to pop culture and subtle innuendo as well. The developers delightfully skewer everything from extreme sports to They Might Be Giants. This can get a little out of hand at times–sometimes pop culture knowledge is necessary to beat some of the game’s puzzles–but it’s often rewarding to stumble upon, say, a swarm of “scarab beatles” who drop an item called “happiness”, which seems incredibly out of place in a game about killing monsters, until you examine it and discover it’s a weapon–a “warm gun,” as a matter of fact. Further encounters with the “beatles” might net you a “rocky raccoon,” a “mojo filter” or even “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” Each weapon, item, and monster in the game has its own unique and charming flavor text. It’s often worth equipping a weapon or using an item in combat, even if it doesn’t really do much for you in the current stage of the game, just to see what it will say when you use it.
(Your view of the world in Kingdom of Loathing.)
This more than makes up for the fact that the game doesn’t really have much of a plot per se. In what seems to be a parody on the barebones plots of early computer RPGs, your main mission in life is take random quests from the Council of Loathing (mostly of the form of kill monster X or retrieve item Y) until they give you the quest that ends the game. But while you’re looking for that final boss, you will be sneaking into the lair of the king of the “Knob Goblins”, fighting gnolls on “Degrassi Knoll,” swapping innuendos with “Smut Orcs” on your way to the mysterious “Orc Chasm,” playing band manager to a group of disgruntled demon heavy metal musicians in the pits of “Hey Deze,” and solving your own murder in an extended parody of both Twin Peaks and The Shining, among other things. There are also a huge quantity of subquests, some of which are part of the core content, and some are only available if you donate real money to the game. All of them that I’ve experienced so far have had top-notch writing and some good jokes. The humor is often scatological and often of a risqué nature, but the writers do their best to keep it PG-13. There are no graphic depictions of sexual content and you won’t find very many of George Carlin’s favorite words.
(You too can fight 90’s web puns using 90’s web form technology! L33t!)
3) It’s got a great community. Kingdom of Loathing has thousands of fans who still play the game after all these years. Players can join various in-game clans (analogous to guilds in World of Warcraft) where they can pool resources, access special stat-boosting equipment, and participate in special dungeons organized around social play. There are hundreds of these groups and many of them are still highly active. I haven’t done much with the clans, but it’s nice to know that they are there.
The chatrooms, from what I have experienced, are usually very civil, and the people who participate speak in complete sentences and have interesting things to say. This might have something to do with the fact that the game requires you to pass a test of basic English in order to participate in the forums. There’s even an in-game item called a “WANG” (as in the word processor, not the whatever you were thinking of, you pervert you) that will automatically spellcheck the chat posts of a user you think’s using too much “leet speak.”
I’ve experienced the folks in the newbie chatroom to be extremely helpful and friendly, and they’ve answered all of my questions without a single flippant remark like “RTFM, noob!” Heck, I said once in chat that I needed some Meat (the in-game currency) in order to participate in a clan function, and some random guy gave me 400,000 Meat just out of the kindness of his heart. It might not have been a lot of money for him, but it was a lot of money for where I currently was in the game.
(Just another day in the KoL chatrooms. Not pictured: the KoL chatrooms.)
Speaking of RTFM, there is actually an M that you can RTFM. It’s the KoL Wiki. It is an exhaustive guide assembled by fans on everything inside Kingdom of Loathing, and functions sort of like a strategy guide. I try not to use it too much, as it is quite spoilery. But if you’re ever stuck on anything, it’s an invaluable resource. It’s also fun to look at to read about parts of the game you can’t access any more because they were one time events or older content that has since been retired. Fans have also authored many other helpful guides, such as interactive puzzle solving maps, a reference to all of the pop-culture references found in the game, and an exhaustive study on the in-game economy (players can sell in-game items, sometimes for lots of Meat, by running stores in the Mall of Loathing, and this tool helps you decide when to sell and what to charge. Very cool.)
4) The game has been constantly updated for the last 12 years. The game has been running constantly since 2003, and the developers are always adding new content. Just this year, they revamped the store menus to make them easier to use, and added two new quests in beginners’ areas to give a boost to newbies. Every month they add a new premium item that you can get for a donation of $10. Sometime it’s a useful weapon or stat-boosting item, and sometimes it’s access to a new level. This month (April 2015), the special item was a ticket to “Dinseylandfill,” a playground of toxic waste that mocks a certain popular family entertainment destination.
They’re also doing things to tweak player balance and fix bugs, and they’ll often do that in the most entertaining way possible. In 2004, some players found a bug that when exploited gave them billions upon billions of Meat. Instead of banning the players responsible, Asymmetric introduced a new in-game faction, the Penguin Mafia, who stole people’s Meat and also offered items for sale at extremely inflated prices that people could buy for bragging rights. They also had the Council of Loathing construct a huge cannon to fight off the Penguin Mafia which required massive donations of Meat to build. The top donors got bragging rights. From time to time, the developers will put in other “meatsinks” such as these to make sure the in-game economy does not suffer from too much inflation. That’s a lot more fun way of doing things than strictly punitive measures.
(Don’t push your luck, though–you do not want to mess with these guys.)
5) The game is actually quite fun. Even though you are playing a game where the character classes are named “Disco Bandit” and “Pastamancer” and such, and every weapon, item, monster and situation is named after a pop culture reference, the core mechanics that drive the game are very sound. There are three main stats (Muscle, Mysticality, and Moxie) that determine the outcome of every action you do in the game. Maximizing those stats is the way you advance through the game, just like, you know, an RPG game. There are thousands of items, each of which affect stats a little differently, and there is a lot of strategy in mixing and matching equipped items to face the battles ahead. In addition to battles, there are also a lot of puzzles you have to solve in order to pass the challenges of the game. Some of them are simple deductive logic puzzles, some require you to decode ancient dwarven runes, and some of them require you to put your answers in the form of a haiku–or a palindrome.
The core game itself is really quite short. You get the final quest at level 13, which I got to on my first ascension in about two weeks playing less than an hour a night. However, once you beat the game you can “ascend” to a New Game Plus style mode that lets you play the game again as another class. You can play in Standard Difficulty, which lets you use the items you accumulated during your last game but with some restrictions, Hardcore Difficulty, which doesn’t, or a Special Challenge Path, which can be as simple as being unable to eat or drink, or as tricky as “Bees Hate You,” in which you cannot equip or use any item with the letter “b” in its name. This makes some quests impossible and others extraordinarily difficult. By playing the game over again you can learn extra skills for your character and access special ascension content, which really adds to the replay value. I have ascended three times already and I am still discovering new things. There are people on here who have ascended hundreds of times, and I assume they keep finding things that keep them coming back to this Kingdom of Loathing.
So yeah, that’s what I have been doing with all my time since January. Maybe now that I have gotten this review out of my system I can go back to writing again–maybe even write more Atari 2600 reviews, since they seem to be the main interest of people who visit my blog site. At any rate, if I have convinced anybody to try Kingdom of Loathing just for a bit, my writing will not have been in vain.
Contemplating my pencils
My wife has been away for the last week. She had to go back home to the Midwest to do some family reunion thing. I was invited, but money and work issues kept me at home. So you would think all this solitude would help me produce the world’s greatest teen romance/mystery/fantasy/scifi novel ever? Nope. I’ve just been sitting on my butt playing Kingdom of Loathing and watching the world go by. (It’s an awesome game by the way–I should write an article on that sometime.)
I thought that getting back to that plain blue screen with friendly white letters on it that fueled my writing in my teenage years would inspire me, but I got distracted by figuring out how to make old DOS programs like WordPerfect 5.1 work in 64-bit Windows. Then I got further distracted by articles advocating for WordStar (WordPerfect’s even-more-archaic cousin), an article on how much Microsoft Word sucks, and a very enlightening article which argues that all word processing software (especially Word) is inherently obsolete because it assumes you are writing words to be printed on 8.5″ x 11″ sheets of paper, when most writing nowadays is shared electronically. But people just keep using Microsoft Word because it’s entrenched and people are just too used to it.
The same, in my opinion, goes for all those writers who are stuck in WordStar or WordPerfect: all they need is something to put text in, and mark it up with basic bold/underline/italics/etc., but instead they hold on to archaic, obsolete, proprietary software on systems that are prone to bugs and hard to fix when something goes wrong. There’s much better stuff out there right now. George R. R. Martin could probably do everything he needs to do in, for instance, emacs. (Not to infuriate fans of vim or jed or pico or insert-your-favorite-other-text-editor-here, but I just mention emacs because it’s the one I’ve used the most and am the most familiar with.) Not only can it be configured with WordStar key bindings, it can be run on both modern and ancient computers without much trouble (essentially anything that runs Linux, and there may even be a DOS version). He wouldn’t have to get up from his 30-year-old Kaypro and walk over to his other machine every time he wanted to check his wiki to figure out which of his characters are still alive. Emacs does have a tremendous amount of functionality, but unlike the auto-correcting flashy-ribbony Microsoft Word he keeps complaining about, it does a good job at hiding unwanted features from the user (in terminal mode, it just presents a text box with a status bar on the bottom, much like many old DOS word processors.) I admit there’s a steep learning curve on all but the most basic emacs modes (heck, I’ve been trying to master it for years, only to go back to Notepad or gedit or something like it when things go wrong.) However, it is suitably archaic for the likes of Mr. Martin, since the earliest versions of emacs predate WordStar by several years. But unlike WordStar, emacs has been constantly updated and bug-checked for over thirty years.
The best part of about something like emacs is, since it is open-source free software, I don’t have to worry about support for it being tied to a company that might go out of business. I can also be sure that anything I write in emacs can be read with any software that reads ASCII text. Plain text is future-proof. I recently discovered this by pulling some old emails from my backups that were also 20 years old, and I could still read them just fine, whereas I needed to jump through hoops to read my WordPerfect 5.1 files, and there are still some old files I can’t read at all. I think they were written in AppleWorks or the Mac version of WordPerfect or an old version of 602 Office (some shareware MS Office clone my mom liked) or Q&A Write (some other non-compatible program that was on the 486 I borrowed from one of my college roommates, that I used because I couldn’t afford WordPerfect or MS Office) or Tandy DeskMate or some other product produced by some other now-defunct victim of Microsoft’s office software wars. I really don’t want to track down all of those softwares again (especially when some of them require a pre-OS X Mac or Windows 3.1 to work.) If I had just saved my work as plain text, I could read it all today.
If I wanted fancy formatting in my document, I could just do HTML. Or LaTeX. Or save as RTF (which most word processors, even the feature-limited WordPad and TextEdit, which come with Windows and Mac OS X, respectively, can open). All those file formats will be readable in 10, 15, 20 years or more, unless there’s some kind of fundamental change in how we do computing (like if we all go to brain-implanted virtual reality quantum computers or something.)
I also know my modern laptop, modern flash drives, and modern cloud backups are a lot more stable and secure than a 30-year-old DOS machine. I can’t tell you how many times back in the day that I put a file on a floppy to print out at school, only to have the floppy fail or the file end up unreadable when I opened it up at the computer lab. Or, for that matter, in the late 90’s I had something called a “Zip drive” which… well, to say those were unreliable would be an understatement.
So I have decided that I need to look towards the future instead of luxuriate in nostalgia. I want to write, not fight with ancient computer programs and obsolete file formats. (I admit it’s fun sometimes to do just that, but only when you’re just doing it for fun.) So I just have to pick up the closest pencil from the huge box of pencils I have in front of me–and just start writing again. And hope I can still read stuff written with that pencil in the future.
Corel WordPerfect 6.2 for DOS – A Look Back
I’m sure some of you may have noticed my “WordPerfect 5.1” screenshot in my last post looked a little “off”. The menu bar had different options from the standard WP51 menu bar, and the path on the bottom of the screen was not C:\WP51, but C:\COREL\WP62. Yes, I actually took that screenshot in DOSBox running Corel WordPerfect 6.2.
Remember that I had serious problems actually getting 5.1 to work. I figured out why though. The ancient floppy disks I was using were corrupted, presumably from being baked in the desert heat in my parents’ dusty shed in the backyard. So, while looking for a completely legal solution to this problem, I found an abandonware site with all sorts of versions of WordPerfect, so I decided to try the latest version of DOS WordPerfect, version 6.2. It installed like a dream, and it actually works perfectly (lol) in vDOS.
(Well, not exactly perfectly. It has a few issues, but I think those might be the fault of the vDOSWP installer, which was kind of glitchy. And it might possibly have a virus.)
I played around with this version of WordPerfect a bit, thinking it would be nothing more than an incremental update, but it’s actually quite a bit different than the classic program I spent six months learning back in the early 1990s. Apparently this version didn’t come out until 1997, eight years after 5.1, after WordPerfect had changed hands twice (to Novell and then to Corel), after the game-changing Windows 95 had been out for over a year, and after WordPerfect 7 for Windows had been out for several months.
So naturally this version of DOS WordPerfect borrows a lot of ideas from Windows. A lot of keyboard shortcuts were altered to be more like the standard Windows ones. Some of the old ones were preserved. You could activate bold type and underline by typing F6 and F8 respectively, or you could hit CTRL-B and CTRL-U like in every Windows word processor. But a few of the others didn’t survive the transition. Help is F1 now, not F3, and ESC is now the “go back a menu” key instead of F1. Again, following Windows conventions instead of the way WordPerfect handled it in the past. However, the new keyboard shortcuts are listed on the menu bar instead of in a help document, so it’s not too hard to readjust.
But other things are very different. WordPerfect 5.1 and versions before it gave you text menus. You selected the option you wanted by typing the number corresponding to the name of the option. For example, if you want to type in italics, you would type CTRL-F8 and then type “2” for Appearance and then “1” for Italics from the menu that popped up. (For some reason, this was handled a lot differently than bold and underline, probably because old-timey printers didn’t do italics very well, if at all.) After a while, you wouldn’t have to even read the menu, you could just do everything by remembering the keyboard shortcuts. However, when you type CTRL-F8 in WordPerfect 6.2, it opens up a Windows-style dialog box, with a huge number of options combining several of the old menus.
You can still use the keyboard, but the numbers you press are all different. Now it’s “CTRL-F8, 3, 4, Enter.” At the very least, if you’re used to the old way of doing things, it’ll throw off your muscle memory, but it may also mean that you have to re-record all of your old macros and might break your entire workflow until you readjusted to the new system.
There was a method to this madness, however. The reason that the system was changed to appear more Windows-like was because, when you hit CTRL-F3, this seemingly innocent-looking DOS program turned into a full-functioned Windows-style GUI, complete with WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editing, TrueType fonts, and enough menu bars to clog up half your screen.
The text mode version of the same part of the page.
You can even change fonts on the fly! Just like in Windows!
The only thing missing is Comic Sans!
(You could probably install Comic Sans, since 6.2 can use Windows TrueType fonts, but why would you want to pollute WordPerfect that way?)
The graphics look like crap in this version because vDOS is limited to 640 x 480 VGA resolution and it doesn’t scale very well on modern LCD screens. In DOSBox (or on real hardware, natch) it can support much greater resolutions. There are a number of different things you can do in the graphics mode much more easily than the text mode (like using the mouse, inserting images into documents, manipulating multiple document windows, etc.) but the text mode still has commands for all of them. I really don’t want to go through all of 6.2’s graphics features, because I much prefer the text entry mode for what I want to do, but if you want to learn more, here is a website filled with screenshots of WP 6.x’s graphics mode. It’s for the Novell version of WordPerfect 6.1, but for all intents and purposes, the Novell and Corel versions are mostly identical.
I think that this is pretty cool. This dual-mode system separates content from presentation in a way that Microsoft Word never seems to manage. You can type out your thoughts in a basic scrolling text window, using DOS’s major strength, basic scrolling text, as an advantage. Then, when you want to format your document for printing, you can jump into the graphics mode and tweak the margins and fonts and all that stuff–all within the same program.
It also serves the purpose of making the program easier for people who were already used to Windows to jump into it–and to make it easier for old-time DOS text wranglers to ease themselves into the new GUI paradigm. I can see why the makers of WordPerfect did it this way. They still wanted to support their DOS users, since that was where most of their business still was. WordPerfect came late to the Windows scene and their earlier versions of WordPerfect for Windows were buggy and not well received. However, they knew that Windows was the future and that in order to stay competitive with the Microsoft Office juggernaut, they had to provide an easy path for their users to migrate to Windows so they would stick with the product through future revisions. WordPerfect 6 for DOS greatly resembles its Windows counterpart in the graphics mode, the text mode uses the same menu layout and keyboard shortcuts, and both versions use the same fonts, file formats, and macros. If you learned on WordPerfect 6 for DOS, you could transfer the same skills over to WordPerfect 7 for Windows 95 when you finally traded in your 386 for a Pentium.
Of course, not all diehard WordPerfect users bought into Corel’s way of thinking. If you spent years using WordPerfect 5.1, and doing things its way, and then Corel comes along and switches enough things around to make things difficult for you, you would probably feel a little resentful. I’d imagine the response to the changes would be similar to the tremendous outrage of Windows users after the release of Windows 8. And if you were a new user who was used to the Windows way of doing things, you’d probably just buy the Windows version of WordPerfect anyway. So I can understand why WordPerfect 6.2 was resigned to the dustbin of history and when most people think of WordPerfect for DOS, they think of WordPerfect 5.1.
Which is a shame, really, because WordPerfect 6.2, along with the other applications in the Corel WordPerfect Suite, would make an excellent graphical office system for a small business in the mid-1990s that were probably still on 386s or 486s and didn’t want to shell out hundreds of dollars for Windows 3.1, or thousands of dollars to upgrade to a computer that could run Windows 95. This was back when a decent 486 or Pentium with enough memory to run Windows and office software at a speed faster than “snail’s pace” could run you $3000-$4000, and software wasn’t cheap either. Corel WordPerfect Suite 6 would run you $375 new back in 1996, but it was a small price to pay to be able to use the new features on old equipment. And you could run it without any Microsoft software whatsoever (unlike Microsoft Office, Corel products will work in DOS clones like FreeDOS, DR-DOS, and Novell DOS.)
Of course the coming of Windows 95 and Microsoft’s economic and litigious powerhouse destroyed the DOS clones and the market for DOS software, and Microsoft Office, which used secret Windows APIs to give itself a speed and performance advantage over its competitors, introduced upgrades that were increasingly bloated to force users to upgrade their systems, and produced obfuscated file formats that could not be easily read by non-Microsoft products, quickly became the standard.
So what purpose does WordPerfect 6.2 serve nowadays, when you can download a pretty awesome open-source office suite for free, and there are multiple ways to edit documents for free through your web browser? Probably very little. If you want classic DOS WordPerfect, 5.1 is your better choice; if you want a distraction-free blue screen for your writing, there are options that run natively in Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux; and if you want a Windows-ish GUI word processor, you have many better options. I think it’s fascinating from a historical perspective though, to see what was out there, and to remember that there were many more ways of doing things than Microsoft’s way (which they stole wholesale from Apple, Xerox, Digital Research, and VMS, among others, but that’s a tale for another day.) WordPerfect 6.2, as unpopular as it was, walked the line between the old (DOS) and new (Windows) paradigms, and it must have served its purpose, because even if WordPerfect isn’t as big as it used to be, it’s still alive and being continuously updated (it’s up to version 17 now.) That’s more than can be said for most of its competitors.
(Update: The vDOSWP installer actually had some kind of trojan attached to it, and my computer was slowing down and doing all sorts of weird graphical glitches. So now I’m in Ubuntu running a virus scan on my Windows partition. On the upside though, I just discovered that LibreOffice reads WordPerfect 6 files pretty well.)
Rearranging my pencils
I have been staring at this computer all day. I have no idea why. I’m not doing anything useful at all. I’m not looking for jobs, writing my novel, or learning Spanish. I’m not even playing Kingdom of Loathing, the online game that I got sucked into back in January. I’m watching old Homestar Runner cartoons that I’ve watched many times before and trying to make the ancient WordPerfect 5.1 word processor for DOS work on my Windows 7 setup.
As far as the last one is concerned, I know why I’m trying to do that. I feel like it would help me write again. I remember extremely fond memories of staring into the friendly blue screen with white text back in my teenage years, back when “serious” computers ran DOS and word processors were clunky, text-based affairs that required you to learn a metric shit-ton of control codes in order to do anything other than type. But for some reason, I have a lot of nostalgia for those days. I figured out how to use the keyboard interface and typed all sorts of stories and journals and school papers and projects into that thing. I felt like I could write anything with WordPerfect 5.1 on my mom’s 286.
(We’re getting all recursive, now!)
But then, the world changed. Computers became faster, more capable, more connected, easier to use yet more annoying at the same time. The huge metal IBM box in the office got sent to the junk yard when my mom upgraded to a Pentium with Windows 95. It could get you on the Internet where an infinity of information came through at you, constantly distracting you. You could run multiple programs at once, but they all competed for your attention like a dozen people trying to instant message you at once. Program X needs updated. Program Y is shoving ads in your face. Program Z has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down! And don’t forget, you’ve got mail!
Windows-based writing programs like MS Word (and all Windows-based versions of WordPerfect) are set up with black text on a white screen. It made them present something that looked more like a printed page, but I found the glare of the white always hurt my eyes, no matter how I adjusted the contrast or brightness on my monitor. And while you’ve got dozens of fonts to choose from, and numerous other settings, you find yourself adjusting your work to look good rather than actually doing the business of writing.
(Also… taking all the time to figure out why it’s making squiggles all over my work.)
I’ve tried so-called “minimalist” text editors, but none of them seem to work for me. Either they have too few features to write comfortably in (no spell check or find/replace or even support for accented characters) or too many nonsense functions (like playing New Agey mood tones or making fake typewriter key noises or changing the background colors at random) for me to respect them as a writer’s tool. Or they cost too much money, or they’re only for the Mac, or they’re based on decades-old Unix terminal editors that come with so many unfamiliar and unintuitive commands, they make WordPerfect look like Notepad by comparison. You know how it is.
And then I read an article online about how author George R. R. Martin writes all of his ultra-violent fantasy novels on an old DOS machine running WordStar 4.0. I googled WordStar and found this other article written by science-fiction author Robert J. Sawyer that said that WordStar was the greatest thing since sliced bread because of its awesome keyboard shortcuts, which were like WordPerfect’s but totally different. That made me wish that I could track down something like my mom’s 286 to use just for writing. However, I soon realized that something like that would not only take up too much space in my tiny apartment, but also be prohibitively expensive to get shipped to me if I bought it online.
I thought about getting a classic laptop for this project, but laptops from that period had crappy screens and were not much smaller than desktop units.
(We’ve come a long way since then.)
I actually found a Pentium I-era laptop alongside a dumpster about a year ago, and was going to clean it up to use as a distraction-free DOS writing machine, but the screen was dim, the keyboard was mushy and uncomfortable to type on, its floppy drive was broken, and had no CD-ROM, USB, networking ports, or anything to get software on the machine–or writings off the machine. I am a huge nerd when it comes to old technology, but I wasn’t about to spend $$$ on peripherals for this thing or rig up some sort of MacGyvered file-transfer cable to plug into this laptop’s serial port just to run WordPerfect again.
Then I thought, why not just emulate WordPerfect on my Thinkpad? There seem to be numerous ways to do that. Some guy at Columbia University seems to have spent a tremendous amount of time compiling them all. Well, that doesn’t seem to be working out for me either. I can get the program to run in DOSBox, in a window, which clashes horribly with all the other windows on the screen. When I hit Alt-Enter to make it run as a full-screen application, it attempts to emulate 640 x 480 VGA screen resolution… which makes the text blurry and really eyestraining. vBoxWP uses Windows system fonts instead of DOS console fonts, so it’s a little better… or it would be, if the program didn’t glitch out every time I try to do anything. Virtualbox works okay… but can’t do full-screen for reasons unbeknownst to me.
I also downloaded a more obscure emulator called PCE which emulates a 16-bit 8086 processor along with a complete IBM PC BIOS, peripherals, and VGA monitor. It’s quite neat–it even runs long-forgotten operating systems that time forgot and DOSBox won’t touch–stuff like CP/M (the original WordStar OS), Minix, and Xenix. But… it also runs them at 8086 speeds. It took about an hour to install WordPerfect from a disk image on my computer via the DOS setup program, which I expect is how long a computer from that period would take to read 11 floppies. There didn’t seem to be any option in the emulator to speed that process up, either. Felt like loading a game on the Commodore 64 using the notoriously-slow tape drive.
But I got it to run to my liking… and I was just about to start typing up a storm like back in the good old days of the 1990s… when I realized that I had forgotten all of the WordPerfect keyboard shortcuts. I had to use the mouse menu or look up the codes in the help pages constantly just to get it to do basic things like boldface and centering text. And when neither of those availed me, I had to just look up advice in a web browser. I realized that this was getting me nowhere.
Also, there was the little matter of getting the text out of the emulated system and onto something I could copy and paste into a Word document or a WordPress input dialog. Turns out that’s not as easy as it sounds either. I anticipated this issue back in college when I converted all my old WordPerfect 5.1 files to the (then-new) WordPerfect 8 .wpd format. Word and LibreOffice are okay with those, but documents written with the 25-year-old DOS program become a garbled mess. I understand you can open them right with the latest version of WordPerfect (which has miraculously survived the Microsoft Office onslaught and made it to version 17) but that’s $54.95 I really don’t care to spend right now (although it would make a great gift for the wandering nerd in your life.)
So… I spent all this time rearranging the chairs in the Procrastination Station when I could have been on the writing train. Using anything. MS-DOS Edit. Word with a reverse-colors Windows theme. Vim or emacs in a Linux console. Heck, even a pencil and paper. That’s just me, though. I’m so blinded by nostalgia and a need to return to a time where I felt more creative and less writers-blocked that I spend all my time making ancient software work instead of doing the work of my soul or continuing that fantasy novel I’m currently stuck on chapter five of.
Hell, even writing this blog post is a form of procrastination… as well as a way to keep myself sane on a lonely Saturday in which absolutely nothing else is going on. But at least I’m writing again. At least I’m writing something.