I recently gave a talk at the Apple Store on “Freelance Writing On The Mac.” In preparing for that talk, I had to actually look at my writing process and how I do things now, as opposed to how I did things back in the Dark Ages B.C. (Before Computers). Yes, that’s right; I’m old enough to remember a time before personal computers sat on everyone’s desk. Not only that, I’m old enough to have written a few of my novels in those medieval times...
MY FIRST TOOLS:
I wrote my first three novels in longhand.
Yes, I heard those gasps of horror. I know. It’s awful, isn’t it? But it’s true: I drafted out my first three novels entirely in longhand, even though I had a perfectly functioning IBM Selectric sitting on my desk. Here’s why: to me, a typewriter is a ghastly tool for composing words. I tried drafting on the typewriter, but it just didn’t fit my creative process. It was like using a shoe to hammer a nail into the wall. You see, I’d type a word, and realize a sentence later that I wanted to change that word or that phrase, and I didn’t like any of the ways I had to do that. I could start the page over again (but that was a waste of paper, and I’d have to type a lot of stuff again, and that wasted time.) I could roll the paper up and make the corrections by hand (but that made for a messy manuscript, and it also took time, and you could never get the paper back in exactly the right place.) I could make a note to change it later (but then I had to stop and do that or I’d forget it, and notes are easy to misplace, and that meant that the typewritten paper ‘wasn’t right.’)
Ugly. No matter what way I tried, it was a frustrating process. I decided I’d rather write longhand, scratching out and replacing the offending passages. It made for an ugly draft, but at least everything was all in one place, and it didn’t waste time (except for the fact that I could type faster than I could write.)
For that matter, typewriters weren’t even great tools for doing the final ‘submission’ draft. Too difficult to correct mistakes, and if I wanted a second copy, my only choice was carbon paper. If a manuscript came back too ravaged to send out again, I’d have to type it over once again... Bleh!
In 1985, after hearing several friends rave about how much easier their writing life was now that they had a computer, I decided to take the plunge...
Now, this is not an article about Macintosh, so I’ll just briefly outline the reasons I went with that platform: at the time, a Macintosh was the only choice if I wanted to have black type on a white background, a “What You See Is What You Get” (WYSIWYG) word processing file, and the ability to do graphics as well as word processing. Those were all attributes on my ‘must have’ list, so I went with Macintosh. I also picked up Microsoft Word -- which first came out on the Mac platform, by the way. At the time, compatibility wasn’t any issue at all, since all the publishing industry cared about was the paper output. They had no interest in electronic files. (Compatibility is still not an issue, by the way -- any OS can read most types of files...)
Anyone ever use a stapler for a hammer? Or a kitchen knife as a screwdriver? When you use the right tool for the right job, you know it instantly. The first time I sat down to compose a new story, I knew that word processing on a computer was the right tool for me. I could feel it. Want to go back and change a word or a phrase? No problem. Want to move a paragraph somewhere else? Cut and paste. Need to insert some foreshadowing? Dead easy. Need a new copy of the manuscript? Just hit ‘Print.’
This was it. Nirvana. To hell with handwriting the first drafts. Here was a tool I could use to take a story from start to finish.
THE BIG TOOL IS THE HAMMER
In any toolbox, the hammer is the one essential tool -- you’ll use it on every job. For a writer, your ‘hammer’ is your word processor. As a writer, I use it the vast majority of the time I’m sitting at the computer. As a writer of fiction, I have certain requirements of my word processor. Here’s the list of attributes my word processor absolutely must have:
(1) Change fonts
(2) Change type sizes
(3) Create underlines, italics, bold, etc...
(4) Change margins (top, bottom, left, right)
(5) Change justification (left and center are essential...)
(6) Change line spacing
(7) Create headers
(8) Create automatic page numbers
(9) Give an accurate word count
(10) Spell check (not grammar check...)
(10 a) the spell check must have ‘learning’ capability...
(11) A thesaurus is nice...
(12) Be able to give me bullets (for outline work)
(13) Be able to give me tables (for appendix work)
(14) Produce paper output that is easily readable
(15) Produce electronic output that is compatible with the publishing industry (.doc or .rtf works for that...)
Now... a really good tool also gets out of my way and isn’t obtrusive. It will do everything I need it to do... but it won’t be cluttered with abilities I don’t use. I don’t want a hammer that’s also a bottle opener, tape measure, level, and drink mixer -- because that’s just distracting. My hammer doesn’t jump up and question me or make stupid suggestions. My hammer will have an interface that makes sense and feels right. And it will allow me to share my work with everyone else in the publishing world.
Again, I could go on a huge rant about Microsoft Word, which in my opinion only has the last of the qualities listed in the previous paragraph, but this isn’t about word processors. If you happen to be on a Macintosh, let me give a quick plug for Nisus Writer Express, which (for me) does have all the qualities.
But... Every platform has several word processors. I would urge you to make a list of the qualities you have to have, and then try them all to find the tool that best fits your writerly hand. Believe me, having the right tool makes a huge difference, and you want a great hammer in your toolbox.
YOUR OTHER TOOLS...
Writers also research, and though books are wonderful devices for that, the internet is what I go to more and more often. So... another writer’s tool is your web browser -- and a tool within the tool is a good search engine...
How vital is research? Here’s a question I pose to most of my writing classes: your character is a upper-class woman living in New York in 1855. Your story starts with her waking up and getting dressed...
How does she do that? What’s her morning routine? What’s her room look like? Who else is in the house? What does she put on, and in what order? What does she do about cosmetics? Hair? Her toilet? How long does all this take?
Because until you can answer those questions, you can’t write the scene. Good research is vital in any story, but it becomes more and more important the further you move away from your own time, your own place, and your own culture.
We still haven’t finished fleshing out the toolbox. Once you’ve finished writing something, after all, you’re still not done. The other half of the freelance writer’s job is to market the work you create. So you’re going to need a page layout program to produce flyers, bookmarks, and other promotional material. If you give talks, you’ll need some kind of presentation software. For me, it’s Apple’s Pages and Keynote that perform those functions; there are lots of other programs out there on any platform -- make your own best choice.
Any more, every writer needs to have a web site as well, so you’re going to need a web page design ‘tool’ as well. Again, there are lots of choices: look at what you want to put together, look at your comfort level with HTML, Flash, Java, and all the rest, and decide which program meets your needs. There are everything from simple template-driven programs to incredibly sophisticated ones (which generally have a steep learning curve, so be prepared!) For me, I went to a mid-level program: Softpress Freeway Pro, which allows me to place the items where I want them, then generates the HTML on its own. I’ve also experimented with Apple’s iWeb program.
THE NASTY STUFF
There are always certain awful, onerous jobs we all have to do, and you need something in the toolbox for those. Yes, I’m talking ‘record-keeping’ -- the ugly financial stuff. Sorry, the IRS insists...
A spreadsheet is a good start -- and I’ll say that I’ve only found one choice there: MS Excel. That’s been my ‘writing database’ for years, and it serves my purposes. Those of you who love programming, however, might prefer a database program instead, and writing your own interface for those reports you want to see.
It actually gets fairly complicated very quickly for writers: we have to track submissions. When a story’s sold, we need to note the details of that. We have to track when to expect payments. We have to record those payments. You’ll need to record the publication data: where did the story appear, and when. When stuff gets reprinted, all that information has to be captured. You also have to track any expenses for your work: all the office supplies, mailing expenses, copying, agent fees, convention expenses, etc.
It isn’t simple. But doing it right is essential. Make sure your tool here is one that fits you well.
And then there’s the taxes... My tool for a long time with that was an accountant. Which worked well, but was... expensive. Lately, I’ve been using one of the tax preparation software programs. Those work well -- but you have to make sure that you’re tracking all your data through the year so you can feed it the figures. That’s why good record-keeping is a must.
OTHER USEFUL TOOLS:
Backup software: Actually, this one must be in your toolbox. Backup, backup, backup! Hard drives do two things really well: they store data, and they crash. I will guarantee you that your hard drive will at some point crash. I will also guarantee that it will find the time and place which most inconveniences you to do that. If you’re dependent on your computer for your livelihood, make sure your files are in two or three places. Get another hard drive and back everything up at least once a week. Get a thumb drive and keep it up-to-date with all those files you absolutely, positively can’t do without, and keep it in your pocket at all times (so it’s with you if there’s a fire in your office). If you have space on a server somewhere, upload your files there to, so you can pick them up from any computer anywhere. Backup, backup, backup! Don’t learn the hard way how important this is!
A good e-mail program is another must. The publishing world runs on e-mail. Trust me.
Which means, as a corollary, that you need a decent address book (or contact) software. Preferably one that interacts with your e-mail program so you don’t have to go cutting and pasting addresses from one to the other.
I write fantasy and science fiction. I explore worlds that don’t exist. Thus, when I start a new novel I often start -- literally -- with the lay of the land. I make a map. I’ll confess to being a map nut. I LOVE looking at maps. I can spend hours poring over the details. When I first read Lord of the Rings, I got lost in Tolkien’s world... because of the maps. Now, my usual process is to hand-draw an outline (because I still enjoy drawing by hand). I’ll scan the result, and take it into a graphics program. Again, the ‘right tool’ for me is Adobe Illustrator, but you can find the right tool for you... Mind you, this is not a necessity for most writers. You absolutely do not have to provide maps...
A calendar program is good (but again, not a necessity). I need one myself, or I don’t know where I’m supposed to be when.
iTunes, or some other music player: I’m constantly listening to music when I’m working. iTunes is on all the time...
Games: My advice is to never put a game on your computer. No, no, no... I did that once, and ended up following Lara Croft’s shapely rump through all the levels, using up an incredible amount of time I could have otherwise used creating stories. No, no, no...
THE BOTTOM LINE
Nearly everything I do as a freelance writer is done on a computer: from the beginning of a project to the marketing of a book to the bookkeeping. I was surprised, once I sat down to think it over, how many ‘essential’ software programs I use in the course of my vocation. For me, I want tools that feel comfortable, work in a ‘natural’ way, work well and without getting in my way. I’ve spent a fair amount of time getting my toolbox exactly right.
And here’s where I contradict myself. In the final analysis, the toolbox doesn’t matter. The important thing is the product those tools produce. In fact, that’s the only thing that’s important.
Yes, having the right tools helps the creative process go smoother. But don’t let the search for the ‘perfect tools’ stop you. Remember, all you really need is your imagination, your skill, and pen and paper.
BACK TO "ON WRITING"