Writing – Tools and materials.

Time was, you’d write a book by buying a pencil and a lot of paper.

The Best Writing Device - A Michael Jecks Pen.

Not everyone, of course, would do it that way. Some folks went to steel nibbed pens and ink with their paper. That was a little new-fangled, of course. Then you got the modern habit of buying gizmos. People learned of pens with reservoirs, and then, ye Gods, there were typewriters.

I was lucky enough to grow up at the end of that age. And I still infinitely prefer to use a pencil or fountain pen than a biro or computer. I love the smooth feeling of the nib or lead against paper. In fact, I love both so much, I have a stockpile of notepads and jotters beside me even now. And very glad of them I am too. All the old notes I’ve taken up to eighteen years ago when I was visiting the British Library for research are still here.

I did transcribe a lot of notes onto computer. All those are lost. The computers died, the disks got corrupted – any number of little problemettes – and the records are lost for ever. Just as are three novels. I wrote them on computers that became corrupted.

One of them was on floppy disks. Unknown to me, the drive’s arm became fouled at some point, and because of that, the disks were unreadable by another computer. That was irritating.

Another was carefully backed up to a Zip drive. A great innovation, that was. But the computer acquired a bug, and the bug deleted swathes of my work. I could see something was wrong, so I backed up everything, like a good boy, and duplicated the bug over all my back up disks. That lost me two novels.

All of them were printed – but one copy I lent to a friend because he expressed interest in this unpublished book. And it got – mislaid. He’s still a friend, but I do miss that book. It was my very first, and really rather good.

Good, old fashioned work.

Anyway, nowadays all authors use computers. I bypassed typewriters. I’ve tried to use them, and would dearly like to be able to use them, because a good old manual requires no electricity, it makes a satisfying sound, and I think they’re rather handsome devices. But can I write books on them? Nope.

I started writing after selling wordprocessors for years. The idea of working straight to paper just doesn’t work. And I couldn’t afford all that paper now, either.

I met Laurence Block many years ago when he happened to be travelling, and he mentioned then that he had been away with a portable typewriter, and found it quite freeing. He took it to a cottage in Ireland and spent some weeks in a place without electricity. The next holiday, he swore, he would have only a pencil and paper. Minimalist, you see.

Today I was talking to the delightful David Hewson (and if you haven’t read his books, you should) and he told me of his latest gadget, a seven inch display tablet.

I’m jealous. I have an iPad, but it’s just too big for my pocket. A slightly smaller tab would be better.

Why a tablet?

I don’t have a need for a lump to carry around with me. The number of times in recent years when I’ve been travelling and needed a laptop could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

However, my iPad is with me (in the house) all the time. I check emails on it, I make notes, I tweet. More importantly, I plan and plot.

I use iThoughtsHD on the iPad to sketch out scenes I need, characters, plots – anything. The headings can be thrown at my computer and shoved straight into Scrivener. And of course I make huge use of Evernote, which allows me to take photos of scenes, copy maps, pictures or scanned paragraphs, and then reuse them on the Mac at home, on the iPad, or even on the phone. All these things make writing so much easier.

And finally, I use the iPad in the way I couldn’t ever use the laptop.

When the book is drafted, instead of printing a copy, I epublish it to myself. The novel goes straight to the iPad, and there I can read it pretty much as though it was a book. It feels more like a book than a laptop screen, anyway. And I can make notes, add comments, highlight text to be changed or deleted.

David’s latest tablet has two advantages over my iPad: it’s small enough to fit in a pocket. That, I like. It’d mean I’d have it with me even more than the iPad. The second item is one I wasn’t sure about at first. A pen.

Instead of typing everything as I do now on the iPad, this means you can ring text, scrub through it, add comments. Almost anything. It sounds like a really good idea. But I wonder how long it would be before I lost the damn thing.

I have often said that with two books a year which I have to write, and not Agatha Christie, 70,000 word books, either, but carefully researched books of 140-150,000 words, if I didn’t have such a good working knowledge of my period and didn’t make use of actual murders and events, I’d find it very hard to think up new stories.

Well, if it weren’t for the use of good equipment and software too, I’d find it even harder.


10 Responses to “Writing – Tools and materials.”
  1. I grew up in the era of typewriters then computers, and I still prefer a notebook with a ballpoint pen. :)


    • No, no, no! You mustn’t use ball points. Horrible! Buy a nice fountain pen, or a pencil . . .


      • Jack Eason says:

        Fountain pen? Eeek, far too messy, especially for a ‘lefty’ like me. As a consequence of my lifelong left-handedness Michael, my writing is atrocious. So while I do write down the odd thought, or a key word for that pesky point in the story I’ve been trying to figure out. I far prefer using the Onenote system here on my laptop. At least that way I cannot say “I can’t make head nor tale of my notes”, now can I. lol


      • I never said my handwriting was any good! I just love fountain pens and pencils. They make even my writing look a little better. But for work, it has to be pencil and paper, pen if I’m sure I won’t lose it, and otherwise computer or tablet with Evernote!


  2. Oh Michael, have you brought back some memories! I wrote one book on a portable typewriter in the forepeak of our ketch when we were living on board – no electricity so that was the only way. Come to think of it I am so ancient that I don’t think computers had become small enough to be generally available. One chapter had to be retyped thirteen times.

    Now we are paranoid. Each evening I copy whatever Marcia has written onto a memory stick and send a copy by email to my gmail account and another to my PC. Then the day’s work is printed off. As I said – paranoid: most writers are, actually.

    Send a copy of this blog to The Author – they should print it.

    Rodney Wilett


    • I had a situation with my first books where i couldn’t afford a laptop or ordinary computer, and used to come to Devon where I’d play with a daisywheel typewriter. It was a “wordprocessor” because it had a thirty character LCD display. Utterly useless! Couldn’t use it to save my life. And now I am happy using tablet computers instead. How times change!


  3. Alan says:

    I think it’s horses for course. Like you I use my iPad for mindmapping, emails, reading blogs and twitter (oh and writing comments on blogs!)

    I love using pen and paper, but seem to turn every fountain pen I’ve ever had into an inky mess (even some very expensive ones)! Now I use Pilot G2-7 rollerballs, great ink and coverage, and a variety of notebooks and pads.

    I saw David’s post on his new toy too, and must admit it looks interesting but is too pricy for me at the mo, having only had the iPad for a while.


  4. I first started writing in 1980 when I was a freshman in high school on an Apple II. While in college in the 1980s, I wrote a lot of poetry on mainframe systems, and printed them all on paper. During the 1990s, while traveling around the United States with guitar, I wrote in large black sketchbooks with a fountain pen, filling up about 40 volumes. Since 1997 when I bought my own first laptop, I have been writing directly in NotePad on my computers, most of the time. I still always carry a black sketchbook as backup if I get inspired while away from my computer. In 2002 I typeset all those poems from books, and now I have 7,500 long narrative poems stored in Access database. I am able to generate books in Word Document which I format for eBook and for Print on Demand. Because I type 80 words a minute, I am able to keep up with the flow of inspiration and not lose track of the concepts as I write. I am writing my epic in blank verse about scientists on my new Dell desktop. I look forward to using a portable table as well, but I still carry a sketchbook at all times.


    • I now have a wonderful HTC Flyer, and use that to revise all my books as well as using it for quick notes, typed or scribbled. And I still always have fountain pens and pencils ready to hand with blank notepads like you!


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