The Beginning Writer

Writer's Tools: A Topic of A-muse-ment

© Will Greenway 2000

Tools—what does a writer need with tools or artifices of any kind? After all, the only things a good storyteller needs are his or her imagination, a voice, and a willing audience. This is the raw reality that all author hopefuls should face and reflect on. If someone suddenly stopped you in a hallway—and you had to make up a story right then—could you do it? Some of us, as hall-pass abusers and class ditchers, may have had to face that trial on an occasion or two.

Telling a story to a group of people, especially colleagues and friends, is something most of us do every day, and is a pastime that many enjoy. Few writers lack the ability to spin a verbal yarn. After all, speaking comes much more naturally and easily than does committing words to a page. The main difference is that the audience of a verbal storyteller is less likely to be as critical as those of written piece. Also, the typical story told in the flesh isn't quite as complicated or as deep as a literary work.

Novels, and even stories, can get complex in a hurry—especially if the writer has a particular agenda to pursue. Of course, it isn't the complexity that usually causes us as writer's to lag, slow down and potentially stop. It often isn't the story at all, but everything else.

Most of the feat of completing a book is psychology. When you know there's a fat paycheck waiting at the end of your toil, it's much easier to keep at it. However, to finish a book when there's a chance no-one will even read it—much less pay you for it—ah yes, that's an endeavor of a whole different color. We each have our ways of justifying our efforts. The simplest of these is that we simply enjoy writing. Others may say it's the satisfaction of creating something. For myself, it's pursuing the elusive muse to see how the story turns out—because I may know where the path leads, but I rarely know exactly what I will find at its end. That discovery is enough reward to keep me chugging along.

To put it simply, writing is not easy. It's long trek up hill. Many of us are already conditioned and the trekking itself isn't that tiring. It's those days when we have other things to contend with besides the writing itself that it gets really tough. You know, those days when reality starts getting in the way. The list of bumps that can manifest themselves in our paths is long and sordid, we all know what they are and no treatise is either long enough, or oracle enough, to really do the topic justice. Suffice to say, living with our jobs, families, and the host of disasters, natural and not, is pretty tough in- and-of-itself.

That roundabout path leads us the topic of simply getting writing done, and making what writing you do easier. If you're being faithful to your art, and you've fought off the droves of life's distractions and clawed your way to your favorite writing chair, the last thing you want, is to spend 15 minutes of your valuable time simply trying to think of a word. That's why the thesaurus, both the held and electronic kind were invented. That synonym is simply one tool, among many that can make your writing life easier. Now, that isn't to say just having a thesaurus will keep you from that 30 minute word search... If you're a perfectionist or simply must remember that word that fits precisely what you mean... but you just can't...quite...recall. It's really annoying isn't it? Get used to it, the rest of your writing career will be visited by these little 'episodes' from time to time. It sometimes makes you think you've lost your faculties (and worse).

The Writer's Toolbox

There's some unusual items in this list, but bare with me, they make sense in the long run. One of your first best tools you already have—a computer—or I assume you have one, because the text you're reading started it's life on the internet, and it's tough to surf the web without a computer. Here, I know plenty of people will chime in with a plethora computer alternatives—set-top boxes, internet appliances, game consoles... okay, okay... we're talking about writing... not technology. In all earnestness, if you're not using a computer to write you are missing out. I don't care about the curmudgeons like Ellison who say they'll die before 'using one of those damn things'. Guess what, the words go into a computer eventually. Modern book-binding presses are run by computer and it all comes down to the data being fed in off a network, CD, or floppy. Someone has to type it in. The stark reality is that the best person to do the typing is YOU! No- one cares as much about what you've written as you. If, god-forbid, you hand write it and have someone else type it up you will introduce mistakes—guaranteed. If you hand-write, then type it yourself, you're wasting valuable energy. I know I've written this before, but it bares repeating. Composing at the keyboard is a discipline. Learn it! It may take practice, but it is worth it—really! Modern word processors have spell and grammar check abilities, that while still a bit inaccurate in my mind, are still helpful. The energy you expend painstakingly transcribing from notepad to the typewriter or word processor could be used instead to polish the prose. There's practically no excuse for not owning a computer these days, or at the very least, a word processing typewriter. Word processing has extremely low resource requirements. People are literally throwing away machines that will serve admirably as a word processor. So, stop dragging your do take your writing seriously don't you? Enough said.

Those of you who are going to insist your typewriter or pad, go sit in a corner for a paragraph, while I chat with the 21st century writers for a moment. This next bit is about software. I will raise my hand and admit I was dragged kicking and screaming away from Wordstar. This word processor written waaay back in 1984. I used MicroPro's Wordstar from version 1.0 and incarnations of it up to version 7 well into the 90's. It was simple—it never crashed, never ate my documents, and didn't make weird printing mistakes. A couple years after Wordstar came out, people started using Word Perfect. I hated it—passionately. To the point, that if it were the only software available, I would never have written. That's how much the early incarnations of that program annoyed me. I mention these two because the word processing software you use to write with is a personal and subjective thing. What you like, and what makes you most productive is what you should use—period. That said, I would be remiss if I didn't bring up the topic of industry standards. Nearly everyone wants submissions in a format readable by Microsoft Word i.e. RTF (Rich Text Format). If you choose to be one of those rogues not using MS Office and Word, just make sure one you use exports to RTF format. The latest versions of Word Perfect do. A word of warning, if you're an Microsoft Works user (this yucky software was packaged on entirely too many machines), it is NOT compatible with Word and formatting and such gets lost in the conversion. Do yourself a favor, get a REAL word processor.

Okay, those not using a computer can rejoin us. However, we're still going to talk about those 'damn things' several more times, so whenever you see a computer reference clamp your hands over your ears and scream 'la la la...' so that you don't accidentally get dragged into the information age.

The computer is a pretty obvious tool. Did you ever think of the chair you sit in, or the cradle you put copy in as tools? They are. The pens you use to proof copy are tools too. Treat yourself right, get a good chair that supports your back so you can sit and focus on what you're doing for more than 30 minutes at a time. They advise workers to get up and stretch about twice and hour to keep muscles loose and relaxed. Do it... it's the right thing to do. Do you need glasses to read copy or the screen? Wear them, damn it, and keep the prescription current. You don't need eye strain. If you're serious about writing and you're using a computer, get the best possible monitor you can reasonably afford. Size is not the issue, but the speed at which the monitor 'scans' is. Ask whoever is selling it to you the 'scan rate at 1024x768'. If at any time they mention 'interlaced' in reference to that resolution... it's no good—pass. If the salesman 'doesn't know'— DON'T BUY. Too many—I repeat—too many neophytes AND professionals have crappy monitors ruining their eyes. Worse yet, many have great monitors, and are STILL ruining their eyes because they have a cheap video card or have the scan rate poorly configured.

Pardon this PC/Windows only reference. (I hear 'la la la...' echoing in the distance). You can tell what the scan rate your monitor is set at by right clicking on the desktop, selecting properties, then clicking the Settings tab. In this dialogue, you can set the resolution, which for most purposes I would hope is at 1024x768 or better (unless you have a really small monitor). Click the Advanced button in that dialogue. From there you should get several tabs, the two you're interested in are either Adapter or Monitor. If you have a Monitor tab in your dialogue click it and you should see 'monitor type' and 'Refresh Frequency'. Anything slower than 72Hz listed under Refresh Frequency is literally hurting your eyes, and will give you headaches after only an hour of use.

If you don't have a Monitor tab, select the Adapter tab. Under Adapter there should be a button to List Modes. The current mode should be highlighted. The modes will be listed in a format like: 1024 by 768, High Color (16 bit), 100Hz. The part you're interested in, is the last bit. In this case 100Hz, or 100 Hertz. Well over the 72Hz limit. 85 is the optimal speed to prevent eye strain. If your monitor will do better you're living fat. Note: Higher colors is often better a well, but will depend on the kind of hardware you have in your machine.

If neither of the described processes brings up the information and settings you OWE it to yourself to learn how this is accessed and configured. It will dramatically improve your long-term use of computers.

I'm sorry, I don't know how Mac users set this. I know some of the older macs were configured terribly in this regard. The black on white just throbbed. It hurt to even look at them for me.

The digression on monitor configuration is a case of where the tool's configuration is as important as having the tool to begin with. Just that one tip will probably save 1 out of 3 readers from getting headaches and prematurely degrading their vision.

Enough about electronic tools. Lets talk basic tools—a dictionary and thesaurus. Whether electronic or paper or both, it's something you should have. A nice substitute for actual dictionary or thesaurus software are the websites and which I use when I have access to the internet and I'm not on my home machine. There are a whole host of writer's help sites (like the one you're reading this on) they can be considered tools to. Read widely and learn...

If you're marketing your work, I suggest having current copies of either the Writer's Market, Novel and Short Story Writer's Market, or the Writer's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents.

Okay, back to electronic gadgets. Another tool that is important to marketing writers is a printer. A laser is best. It's fast and the text is clean and durable. I don't think anybody accepts dot matrix anymore. (Do they even exist?) Inkjet printers render fine copy BUT the cost per image is more expensive than you realize. One cartridge which runs around $30 USD will print around 500 pages. In a low-end laser, a $65 cartridge lasts about 5000 pages. That's 80% less per page, if the math eluded you. The laser printer will cost you twice as much as the inkjet. However, if you print 5,000 pages, the laser has paid for itself in what is saved in cartridges. People will scoff here... 5,000 pages... yeah, right. A book is on average 400 manuscript pages. If you go through 3 drafts, and send out only 5 copies. That's 3200 images. Which is $210 worth of inkjet cartridges. The inkjet, if it's fast will print 6 - 8 pages a minute. My HP 4100 prints 25 pages a minute and holds an entire 500 page ream of paper (instead of 150 pages (or less)). Guess which of us baby sits the printer when a novel needs to be hard copied? My whole book prints in less than an hour. It's worth every darn penny because my time is precious. The cartridges are refillable on this higher end printer too. Refills cost $55 and go 10,000 images. Yes, I love my printer.

For those of you going to a copy service to duplicate your 400 page book at $0.03 an image... that's $12. The laser printer is doing it for roughly one SIXTH the cost ($2). It's all a matter of math and perspective.

Your personal library is a tool. I hope you have favorite books that you keep and can reread. Try to read not only in the genre that you write but in other disciplines as well. The cross pollination will serve you well when you need to go to the well for inspiration on characters, dialogue, and scenes. That library will also be a safe retreat when you simply can't write and need to relax.

For Science Fiction and Fantasy writers, John Clute and Peter Nicholls have created some impressive reference works; The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. These books are by no means must-have items, but they are a wonder to peruse. Weighing in at 1000+ pages and $25 USD for the paper back, and $75 for the hard back they are considerable tomes for resource and background information.

The last tool I want to mention here is the least obvious—your brain. In many ways, it's like a machine, and proper care and feeding will keep it operating at peak efficiency. I've said before to write whenever you can. Here I would like to add that as you get more serious about writing, learn the times when writing is easiest. Some people are night owls, others early birds, for others it's after lunch or before dinner. Learn when you most easily get in the groove and try to make that your scheduled time to write. Don't write anything vital if angry or depressed unless you feel adequately able to channel that energy appropriately. Don't force yourself to write if you're tired unless you find the activity relaxing. Make writing enjoyable for yourself, and reward yourself when you reach milestones. Find ways to motivate you to keep going. Writers tend to be solitary, so you have to be your own coach.

Coaching is the last topic I'll touch on. One of the BEST tools a writer can have is a good critique group, whether online or in the flesh. However, the topic merits its own section. In fact, there will be 3 entire installments (sections 7 to 9) that deal with advice materials, seminars and conferences, and read-and-critique groups.

In the next section we'll deal with completion—getting the book done. In that section we'll revisit tools and ways they can help us chug along to the end of a novel or short story.