Sunday, June 26, 2011

Writing Advice 2: Before the Basics


This is the second in a series of posts designed to assist new aspiring writers learn the craft. You more experienced writers (published or not,) Please feel free to comment on anything you think I might have missed. This is the first day of class where we aren’t going to get any work done, but you’ll get your supply list.

So what do you need to be a writer? A pencil and paper is the basic answer, and it is sort of true, but if you plan on getting published as a writer, you’re going to need more, and this brings me to my first clarification issue (there will be a lot of these.)

WHAT IS A WRITER?
This tends to be a hotly debated topic, and generally reduced to the opinion of the person defining it, and where they happen to be in their career at the time. Most concede that there are ranks, or at least different flavors of writers. How these levels are delineated again drifts in a sea of personal opinion because unlike non-creative careers, fiction writing lacks objective benchmarks. In the United States you can’t practice medicine without first obtaining a license, and you can’t obtain a license without first obtaining a medical degree, so these are looked upon as steps that identify how far along you are in your career. Creative writing doesn’t work that way, although many people think it should (particularly those with degrees.) When you’re talking anything in the realm of the arts it is like entering a nebula in a science fiction movie, nothing seems to work like it’s supposed to. You can be successful with no training at all, and you can hold PhDs in all things literary and never succeed.

But what is a writer?

a) a writer is someone who writes, meaning they enjoy writing and do a lot of it.
b) a writer is someone seriously working to make writing their career
c) a writer is someone who is published
d) a writer is someone who has been vetted by the industry
e) a writer is someone who is supporting themselves entirely by their writing

For most people a writer is whichever one of these you happen to be, or if you are insecure, it is the next one up. However, for the purpose of these posts, I am adding two new definitions.

Newbie aspiring writer: those who would like to one day make a living (or at least money) as an author.
Veteran Aspiring Writer: those who’ve been at this a while and still have yet to break into the industry in any significant way.

Most of my comments will be directed at these two groups of writers, the career oriented--the AP students. 

Now, getting back to what you need, if you try and send a manuscript to a publisher written in pencil, they won’t be too happy. Times have changed. Almost everything is done by word processor and email these days, although I was surprised when my publisher asked if I was comfortable receiving edits from them digitally, and if I wasn’t they would send me a printed hard copy. Seriously? Authors still use hard copies?

WORD PROCESSOR
So, to start you will need a computer and a word processor. If you are on a Windows machine I would suggest Microsoft Word, if you can afford it. It usually costs about $200. This is what I use. If you don’t have the money, you can use Google Docs which provides you with a free word processor service that is compatible with Word and gives you free cloud access (which I will talk about more in a second) or download OpenOffice, which is also a completely free software package that is similar, and compatible with, Microsoft Office. OpenOffice is available for Macs as well. Of course if you’re on a Mac you might want to check out Scrivener which tends to be the leading writer’s software on that platform. There is a Windows version, which is very good, and I talk more about in detail here. And if you’re planning to work on an iPad: Pages is the Apple app for word processing on the iPad and provides all the usual abilities. I also like iAWrite, it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles but it is tailored a bit more for writers. It provides easier access to quotes, apostrophes, and other typically used keys, but mostly it provides the all important and oddly often missing, ability to move the cursor back and forth with the keyboard.

There are also a number of other lesser known programs designed for writers, but I would like to warn you that some of these programs offer so much in the way of options and features that they can become a time-sink in themselves. Writers often have trouble staying on task as it is and you really don’t need any more distraction. When you realize that until very recently, (yes I’m that old) writers all used typewriters, or pen and paper, and did just fine. All the bells and whistles of some of these programs look like toys for people who aren’t really serious about writing. All you actually need is a basic word processor.

INTERNET ACCESS
When I started writing the Internet did not yet exist and research was a career unto itself. Finding the answers to the simplest of questions could take months and require traveling and awkward interviews. Having access to a web browser is like putting away your scrub board and lye soap to make room for the electric washer and dryer. The speed and accuracy of writing improved astronomically.

NOTEBOOK
Something else that I found useful are notebooks. Being at least a little pretentious I prefer the famous Moleskin notebooks that you can find in art stores or your local Barnes & Noble. Moleskin notebooks have been around since the 19th century and were used by artists and writers from Van Gogh to Hemmingway. They come in a few varieties and the package label is color coded to help tell the difference. Some are blank, some are lined, and some are quad-lined like graph paper. They also come in small, medium, and large. These notebooks aren’t fancy. They are the model-T of notebooks, almost always basic black. They are however very durable and very usable in that they have good stiff covers, (allowing them to be written on no matter where you are,) and stitched bindings (that allow them to lay flat on a table,) and take a lot of abuse without breaking or loosing pages. Unfortunately they are also surprisingly expensive, costing around twenty dollars for the medium size (5x8) which I use (large enough to write in comfortably and small enough to carry just about anywhere.) In reality, any notebook, or even a pad will do.

Why use a notebook if you have a laptop or an iPad?

1) Portability and ease of use. I’ve begun doing on-site research for my new novel, which means I go to places and take notes. In a coffee shop it is easy to sit down and fire up a laptop, but it doesn’t work so well if you’re standing up in a store interviewing someone, (and it is hard to both hold and type on an iPad, but I suppose you could take thumb notes on a smartphone) wandering around a crowded city, or riding a bike. You could use recording software, but I find that annoying as I can’t browse through my notes and people shy away from being recorded. There is software that will convert verbal to text, but that’s a lot of effort to go through when you can just use a notebook. A tablet can also be used for this, but they are not quite as rough-and-tumble, and there is another reason I find them inadequate to the task, which I will get to.

2) It allows you to sketch as well as write. You can draw out maps, and diagrams of things you want to use later, or do drawings of places or people, as they appear to you.

3) Mostly however, the reason I use them is for brainstorming. I don’t write prose in notebooks. I write my books on my tower computer locked in the sanctuary of my office with the door closed and the rest of the world, and its distractions, walled off. This is how I focus. When I am writing on my computer I ponder the choice of words. I evaluate the structure of sentences and the build of paragraphs. I try and avoid misspellings and bad grammar even on my first drafts. And were I to take a laptop, or even a tablet to a coffee shop, I would try and do the same and be frustrated by all the distractions.

However, when I use a notebook, when I am writing long-hand using a nice fountain pen, I’m not working on something that could even remotely be used as a finished product. It’s in a book, and written in pen. Nothing I write there can be used as is. Knowing this frees me to not focus on the words, but to think only about the ideas. The noise of conversation, the honk of horns, and the background music blends into static that my mind can ride on as I day-dream. If I were to try this in the isolation of my office, I’d get sleepy. In a busy coffee shop or roadside cafĂ©, the activity keeps me alert, (not to mention the coffee,) but as none of it requires my attention I can let my mind wander. Then when I put my pen to paper, thoughts focus. The first thing I write leads to another. Soon I am scribbling notations of a dozen random thoughts and drawing lines and arrows between them, crossing out some as better thoughts materialize. I’m not concerned about the words I’m using, just capturing random thoughts as they spill out. When I’m done, I usually have dozens of concepts listed that I will use as a resource when I sit down to write. A lot of the time I don’t need to look back at what I wrote, just having written it is enough to have helped me work through plot or character issues. But when I get stuck, or am delayed due to real-life issues and forget, I can look back and jolt my memory.

4) Posterity. A notebook forms a bit of history, insight into the making of a written piece. Should one day you write the great American novel, that little notebook might be worth something to the world. If not, it will still be worth something to you.  

PEN
Another thing I use, as mentioned, is a fountain pen. Why? Cause it’s cool. It makes writing a Victorian novelty and therefore fun. It also elevates cramping because you really don’t need to, and really can’t, press hard with a fountain pen. Most cost upwards of $60 but I found a very nice pen on Amazon for just over $20.

SOFTWARE
The best software I’ve found outside of a word processor is WordWeb, which is a free application that works as a dictionary and thesaurus. What makes it great is that it works in concert with anything. You merely control+right click on any word in any application and it launches WordWeb bringing up the definition and a small interface for finding a large variety of similar options. So whether I am using Word, or in a browser, I can check the definition of a word or see a dozen alternatives.Sadly this only works on Windows systems.

Google Earth is another useful program, although now it is integrated right into most online maps. What makes this so special is the street view feature you get when you zoom all the way in on a location. You see a 360 degree view of most areas as if you were standing there, at least where there is a major street. This is wonderful if you need to write a description of some place you’ve never seen.

CAMERA
A camera is extremely useful for recoding images that can be used later for reference. No matter how detailed a written description is I still find myself going back and looking at photos. Of course, cameras can’t record smells, sounds, or how it feels to be somewhere, so written notes are still important.

MUSIC
This is something I just happen to do. Total silence while writing, can become oppressive and yet just about any sounds can be distracting. Playing music in the background helps muffle everything else, but songs with words interfere with my writing. Classical music is better, but can sometimes be too dull, or inappropriate for certain scenes. When you are writing a high speed chase through Brooklyn, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, might not be best. I found that scores from movies, not soundtracks (which are too often just a string of songs,) but the originally composed music, that often goes unheard in the background of scenes, are perfect. I have quite a few and created playlists with titles like: Action, Happy, Heroic, Ominous, and Sad. Then depending on the scene I am writing, I play the appropriate list and it can help put me in that mindset the same way the music was designed to put the audience in that mindset.   

For those aspiring writers who can’t afford to purchase dozens of movie scores, or classical performances, you can always use Pandora, which you can download for free. By entering in the name of a movie score composer, or classical artist, it will play similar music for you.

TABLETS & E-READERS
This is of course very optional and can be replaced with a printer, but is better if you can afford it. Every time you read your own work in a different format, you will look at it with fresh eyes. If you write on a computer, and then print what you wrote and read it in another room, you will notice mistakes you never saw before. I think this is due to how the mind perceives things differently under different circumstances. Likewise, if you read your work aloud, you will find other issues, and if someone else reads to you, you will find still more. Mostly however, I’ve found that when you read your work in a setting that is most similar to how you normally read books by other authors, you will find yourself seeing mistakes far more easily. As such, if you read books on an e-reader or tablet, or even a phone, then importing your book to that format and reading it, will often help you better evaluate it as well as find typos. You can achieve the same effect by printing the story and taking it to the couch or bed to read, but then you run into the cost, time, and effort of printing your work over and over. With a tablet you can just email your writing to yourself, Skype it, use a cloud, or a number of apps that allow for simple drag and drop file sharing.

CLOUDS
The Cloud is almost another name for the Internet. If you have Gmail or Yahoo mail, you are using a cloud. A cloud is when you upload and store information on the Net. This is a fairly new and emerging commercial technology, and as such there are several. What it means for a writer is that you can upload the draft of your novel and then access it using any device that has access to it such as your iPad, your laptop, your desktop, your smart phone, or even your friend’s computer.

More than granting you the ability to access your work across platforms, it also works as a backup. I know authors who have lost whole novels when their computers caught a virus and died. There are few things more defeating than losing the only draft of a book. Keeping an updated draft on a cloud means that if your computer is wiped, stolen, or lost, you still have a digital copy you can download to your new computer. Even if your home burns down, and your computer, your HD backup, and all your printed and stored DVD copies are destroyed, you’ll still have the cloud copy. And again it is so much easier to drag and drop a file than to re-print a hard copy or insert and burn a DVD.

Another benefit is collaboration. If you are working with someone else, you can use cloud apps like Google Docs to work on the same manuscript in real time with someone else, so they can see your changes as you make them. And Word and other documents can be uploaded to Google Doc, by just drag and drop, assuming you are using Chrome or Firefox

Most cloud apps are free up to a certain amount of memory usage. Since more people use clouds for photos or music, and since text files are tiny in comparison, you should be able to use cloud technology for all your stories and never hit the max memory usage.

BACKUP
You need a way to backup your work. Never have only one copy of your book or short story, and never keep all the copies of your work on one computer. If you get hit by a virus and your computer dies, you just lost everything. I personally keep many backups in a variety of forms. I burn DVDs of completed drafts and final manuscripts. I have printed copies. I have a massive external hard drive that keeps a mirror image of my entire computer on it. And I keep copies of my works in progress in clouds. So be sure to have some means of making a copy of your work that is not on your computer, just in case.

So this is your list of supplies. Come back next week for your first real class, which will be titled: Outlining. Have a good day and remember not to run in the halls.   


 

12 comments:

  1. I love this.

    The notebook and pen thing. It's something I've been missing for awhile now. That ability to do the brain storm. I've used FreeMind and some other visualization software in the past but the moleskin and pen just calls to me.

    I've always thought "but I can't edit it. Can't use it. I'll just start with the computer..."

    Your reasoning makes perfect sense.

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  2. I acutally prefer notecards to notebooks...but I am quite possibly insaine. Its helpfull though for bits of diaolouge like "Gwen Stephanie, teaching the children of america to spell bananas"

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  3. If you saw my desk (and my shoulder bag and my computer case and ..), you'd understand why having them all bound together and big enough to stand out in the crowd is important to me.

    :D

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  4. Robin loves looking through the notebooks after having read the final book as a sort of low tech, "The Making of..." documentary. I will actually write questions to myself in there to remind me to solve later, or as a means of getting the ideas running. There's also a symbolic connection to the pen. Fountain pens sometimes need a little priming to get flowing smoothly--just like me.

    Yes, I live in my own little world, but it's a nice place.

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  5. Nice post, Michael. I am a Scrivener user and one of the chief values I see of that software (or software like it) is that it allows a writer to focus solely on the writing and organization of a piece, instead of spending lots of time getting bogged down in formatting. (Even in my day job, I see professional researchers whose time is valuable, to say nothing of expensive, trying to format their own documents in Word, when their time would be better spent producing original thought.)

    I can rarely listen to music when I am writing. Most of the time, I put on my Bose noise-cancelling headset, which helps me tune out the world so that all I hear is the story going through my head. On some rare occasions, however, there are instances where music has helped set the mood for a scene.

    I use digital notebooks, that store my stuff in the cloud. Evernote is the software I use. It takes a little practice, taking notes on an iPhone or iPad, but I've gotten pretty good at it and I'm happy with the result. Also, the notes, photos, scans, are all available anywhere and completely searchable--even image files that contain text.

    And I can't emphasize enough your point on backups. I too have a lot of data on an external disk, but even so, all my computers (and my WordPress-based website) are backed up using the cloud-backup software, IDrive. I've recently written about the value of IDrive.

    You've got a good assessment of tools here. I'm looking forward to the next post.

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  6. Thanks for all the great additions to the discussion, Jamie. Lots of extra credit work there.

    I really do tend to function in something of a cone of silence so I don't keep up on all the new stuff available. I was hoping some folks would augment the list and give their opinions. So seeing as how this is a friendly classroom environment. You get the first gold star :)

    I'll give one to Tucker, for the note cards even if she is insane.

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  7. I agree with the notebook and pen thing...I write most of my first drafts in long-hand and jot down many story ideas that way. Pen and paper simply feels more liberating to me.

    I would also recommend an AlphaSmart Neo or AlphaSmart Dana for portable writing. (www.neo-direct.com)

    Neos are $169 new but you can often find used Danas for less than $50 on Ebay.

    Both devices are portable notetakers--smallish screens, wonderful keyboards. Hit the "on button" and type, simple as that. Then, just plug a USB cable into the device and your PC, fire up your word processor, open up a new file and hit "send" to transfer your work to your PC.

    GREAT for first-drafts...not so much for editing and revision.

    Neo has its own operating system, Dana runs an older version of the Palm OS.

    Best of all, both devices run on common AA batteries. The Dana, because of the palm OS, chews through a set of AAs in about 25 hours (using the backlight is a must because of the dim, touch-sensitive screen), but the Neo lasts 400+ hours on a set of batteries. And these things are TOUGH -- can be dropped, etc. with no damage, ruggedized for the education market.

    Great portable note-takers for instant writing, much more portable and durable than a laptop.

    Great forum, too at www.flickr.com/groups/alphasmart.

    Continued success!

    -- Bill Smith
    www.BillSmithBooks.com
    Author of the Outlaw Galaxy novels (www.outlawgalaxy.com)

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  8. Thanks for your comment Bill.

    For those of you who don't know (and I didn't) a Neo looks to be a low cost word processor-based computer device designed for student use. It looks like a keyboard with a little wide screen that displays four lines (6-8 on the Dana.) There is no mouse or pointer device, and it works much the way the old Word for DOS used to with keyboard shortcuts, which is why I think Bill indicated it isn't the best for editing.

    For an in depth review by a person who is using one try http://www.allisonmdickson.com/2010/02/alphasmart-neo-and-me-faq-review.html

    Thanks again Bill, that was a great comment. Gold star to you too.

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  9. I've been using my paper notebook and I love it.

    Not sure if it would work for me or not, I grabbed a bound composition notebook - the kind with a stiff cover and black/white marbling?

    I've done more real WORK in that thing than I have online.

    And I've since got a Moleskine - 5x8 hardcover quad ruled. It's the same size (and looks a lot like) my kindle.

    Reminds me.. I need to go write

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  10. Wow ! This great!
    Just got back into writing for publication, so really need all this advice. Happy to say I instinctively am doing most of this, but I think I'll replace my "Post-It's" and small yellow legal pad for a Moleskin.

    I am so grateful that this is available Michael [& company], I just chanced on your first book and after reading the
    "Look Inside" preview pretty much fell in love... Looked you up... am so happy you are a sharer!
    I look forward to my next lesson... I really need to work on the outline thing.
    Alex A. Akira

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  11. Thanks for posting Alex, you got me to look at this again and I realized it was dated. I edited it to show the change in status of Scrivener, which was still in beta for Windows when I first wrote this and now has been in full release for several months.

    Glad you are finding these helpful.

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  12. I love that one of the first things you've written about is a notebook and pen. My mother is a snoop. When I was 10ish she stole my diary and read it. I never knew what betrayal felt like until the day I came home and she flipped her lid because I had written about how big of a "meanie" she was.

    It was then that my love for writing started. Instead of dear diary-ing I would make up stories, knowing she would read them. Sometimes the story was about my day, most times they were not. She couldn't decipher what was real and what wasn't, so I never got in trouble by telling on myself again.

    Today I don't leave the house without my leather bound piece of art. I've found some fantastic covers with the leather molded out to be a monster's face or imprinted trees, they get pricey but they inspire me whenever I look at it. I have a quill and ink pot too because that's just how I roll.

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