Writing Lessons 5

Apologies for a silent Monday, but family life intruded into work life.

The next issue that writers often seem to have is the most basic one: which tools to use.

There is a belief that there is a magic series of tools to use, just as there is a magic set of instructions for new authors to follow that will inevitably lead to a best seller. I am sorry to have to tell you that there is no such magic about writing, nor about having a best seller. If you want to write, the main thing is to put in the hours. If you want a best seller, the main thing is to write several books in the hope that one may do really well. 

It does not matter what you want to write, there is no road to instant success that you can learn and follow. Anyone who tells you there is, ain’t a writer. He or she is a snake oil salesman. Do not trust them.

There are many frauds out in the world desperate to meet you and take your money. Some of these charlatans know full well the desperate enthusiasm of aspiring writers to be able to develop their skills and get their books written and published. With some it is more than a compulsion, it’s an addiction to the very concept.

At the top end of those whom I would call the fraudulent dealers there are the Vanity Publishers, who will promise you that they will get your book into the best seller listings, will tell you that yours is the best manuscript they have seen all year, will tell you that you will get the best publicity, marketing, sales drive and push into all the bookshops with them … so long as you sign the contract and pay them some five or seven thousand dollars.

That is the clue. Real publishers expect to pay the author money, they don’t expect to ask the author to pay them. If you have ant doubts, when your friendly local vanity publisher promises the moon, the sun and all the stars, before you sign over your banker’s draft, go and check the local library shelves or bookshop to see if that publisher has any books on the shelves. He/she won’t. If they can’t get the books there, you will never have a New York Times best seller. Vanity Publishing’s business model is to get your money as an author, and produce the cheapest form of book they can in order to keep your money. They won’t have sales teams, they won’t market or publicise. At best they will tell you what you can do to push your sales. 

The next level of fraudulent dealers are those who write about writing. There are many enticing magazines demanding you buy them, because they are full of articles by authors for authors – but which of their contributors have names which you recognise? Can you see Frederick Forsythe in their pages? Or Mark Billingham, or Val McDermid, or Quintin Jardine? No? Again: warning!

There are many, many purveyors of software, hardware, planning material, mind-mapping, project planning, or even just basic word processing – can you test them all? If you do, what is the point? You are not a one-person product tester, are you? How many man hours will you spend working your way through one package after another, trying to analyze which will suite you best? Couldn’t you use that time better by writing your next chapter?

I have a good friend, David Hewson, who was a reporter before he took up full-time novel writing. David has a simple approach: if it will help him get the words down on paper, it is worth it. For that, he will test new software and systems every year. He regularly buys the latest gadget to test in the hope it will make his life better. 

For me, I am a great deal happier with the basics. One basic is, not changing my tools too often. Every new software package requires learning to make it work. I don’t want to spend ages learning new products, all I want is to be able to put words down on paper as easily as possible.

So what tools can you use?

At the very bottom, you can use pen, pencil or ball-point. Yes, they are slow, because not only is typing quicker, if you have a series of pages of hand-written manuscript, you will have to get those pages transcribed somehow. You have introduced an additional stage in the writing process. BUT, and this is important, many people find that putting words on paper with the device of their choice (my own is the fountain pen or pencil) is more effective. It allows them to work more creatively. Paper and pencil is a more stimulating environment, and puts some people into a better frame of mind for writing.

The next level up is the humble typewriter. This can be a very basic mechanical device with no need for electricity – particularly effective for those who may be travelling; then there is the simple electric machine; and finally the full electronic. I have one of each, and they are delightful to use, but I do find the old keyboards a little too slow for general use. I am happier with an electronic keyboard – so long as the keys are individually sprung, and not merely resting on a rubber sheet, like most modern keyboards.

In fact I am typing this piece on my Astrohaus Freewrite, which for me has all the advantages of a typewriter’s ease of use, portability, and simplicity, but has the advantage that everything I type can be edited on my Apple iMac after I’ve imported it into Nisus Writer Pro, which is my word processor of choice, or into Scrivener, which is my writing and editing environment.

Having mentioned the Astrohaus, I guess the next logical step from that is the laptop computer. I have tried to use these many times. In fact I typed some ten or so books on Toshiba and AST laptops, but I would not go back to them now. For one thing, I was never content with the fitted keyboards. They always looked pretty, but in my case, I always needed an external keyboard with real keys that moved up and down.

Laptops do have advantages. When I started out, we had a tiny house. Having a computer out all the time was an issue, and having a laptop that could be folded up and put away was appealing. But the screens were not as good, I needed another keyboard, and the laptop just didn’t work as well. Especially when trying to work away from home. That was the killer: I always found that I could not use laptops comfortably. Even my latest and most beautiful, my MacBook Air, was atrocious to work on. It was the wrong height and weight for my lap, and when I tried to type, the whole thing kept trying to wobble off my lap.

Which is why for many years my main device for input and edit has been an Apple iMac. I am now on my third. They are wonderful devices, although the main aspect that has let  them down for many years has been the keyboard. Again, I do not use Apple’s own keyboards, but those which have individually sprung keys, like this Filco Keyboard. It feels better (to me), allows me to type faster, and reduces the risk of repetitive strain.

Which is best for you?

How can I tell? You have to sit down and try to write. You may be like a number of my friends, and find that you really enjoy the feeling of writing with a pencil on paper, or that the “clacketty clack” of a typewriter keyboard lulls you into a sense of creative daydreaming that helps you to imagine fresh situations and people.

For me, I know the best approach is to plan with paper and pen or pencil. Nothing else matters at the planning stage. I have tried mind-mapping software, but the fact is, I can mind map as effectively on paper as on computer or phone.

For input I have either my Astrohaus or the Apple. Both have advantages and disadvantages for me. The Apple means sitting at my desk, being in the right creative mindset, and allows me to keep checking previous sections of the story. The AStrohaus Freewrite allows me the freedom to sit here, in a comfortable chair in my sitting room, and allow my mind to range more freely over my topic. I love the e-ink screen that works in broad daylight, the way that I can type with it on my lap with comfort, the fact that it works really well for me on the train, in a cafe, at an airport – anywhere – and that it synchronises with my Apple, so I can import all my work straight onto my word processing package, Scrivener.

So are these the devices you should use?

No! The devices you should use are the ones you feel most comfortable using, the ones that will let you free your mind, and allow you to create your best writing environment.

Try things. Pick up a pencil or a pen, and see how you get on. Find an old typewriter and give it a bash, try a laptop, but do, please, try a real keyboard to go with it, something like my Filco which has Cherry MX keys, so you can see just how good a writing experience can be. By all means try a Freewrite. They are brilliant for creating long strings of text.

But the real choice is, to pick the thing that will work for you. No one else can decide what will be best for you, only YOU can discover that!

So the main thing is, stop researching on the internet; take up your pen, pencil, typewriter or laptop, and begin writing. Stop worrying about methods of getting words on the page, and just put them down! You can do it.

Happy writing!

One Response to “Writing Lessons 5”
  1. Lindsey Russell says:

    Sorry, heatwave making it difficult for me to keep up. Excellent advice. The only books on writing I have found any use are by Michael Legat a respected editor, Carole Blake a respected agent, Stephen King don’t need to say any more than his name, and a very old publication ”Becoming a Writer’ by Dorothea Brande which is mainly about how to acquire the mindset of a writer.

    I don’t have a problem with using the key pad of my laptop only an issue of the painted on lettering disappearing from the most used keys.

    Many thanks :)


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