Saturday, October 4, 2008

What tools do I use to write with?

Friends and fellow writers have asked me about my favorite writing tools. I’ll try to describe them without unnecessary detail.

I use two different word processor programs. I use MSWord for the heavy lifting and Notepad++ for HTML and other script editing. MS Excel and MS Access are handy for tracking character information as well as keeping track of time lines. One very critical piece of software every writer should use is Subversion for keeping track of revisions. It stores everything in a repository for later retrieval and is essential in detecting and curing silly mistakes in editing, as well as having the ability to retrieve earlier versions of a document. If you do use subversion, always back up the repository to prevent the loss of everything if your hard drive dies.

A good piece of time-keeping software and an event scheduler is important as well. Thunderbird with Lightning is good for this. I stopped using Outlook ages ago because it had a bad habit of trashing my mail when its database became too large. I'm neither averse nor loyal to M$ products, my general attitude being -- if it does the work then use it, but if it burns me then out the window it goes! I use Photoshop and Gimp for illustrations though many of my filters are homebrewed. Scratch pad is a good piece of software for taking notes and beats having twenty MS windows open.

There are numerous programs for tracking characters and plots in novels and my general attitude is -- don't! A simple excel sheet combined with an access database can help you track everything you need. Generally, if the character is too complex to understand without an application to tie it all together, then the reader won’t understand either. Plot making software is just a waste of money, and nothing out there can do the job – that’s the writer’s job after all.

I write my chapters in separate files and then stick them all together before submitting them. It makes the process of producing one, two, or three chapter excerpts easier. I use homemade scripts for doing the actual assembly, but you can do it by hand without too much difficulty.

Invest in a good grammar and spelling checker beyond the one in MS Word. Better yet, polish your grammar and spelling skills by learning the craft. A dictionary and thesaurus are essential. Try to get an unabridged version of each since the college and modern versions each clip out roughly 75% of the words. The Chicago Manual of Style is a good buy, since it provides a clear description of the standards used by most publishing firms throughout the United States.

The best tool of all is discipline. There are far too many toys and distractions on today’s computers – not to mention the internet – for a writer to remain productive unless they create some writing rules. Use Lightning to set up a recurring schedule and stick to it.

Writer's Conference in Hawley, PA

I just came back from a writer’s conference hosted by the Wayne County Arts Alliance in Hawley, Pennsylvania. The speakers were all very good, and gave us writers some very good insights into certain aspects of the process. In the morning, we learned about writing memoirs, as well as the motivations and methods used to write them. I’ve never been a fancier of memoir’s myself, but the presenter, biographer Oana Nechita, gave some very good instruction as well as a delightful exercise in writing about our own lives.

In the midmorning, the writers Rich Wallace and Sandra Neil Wallace discussed character and voice as well as the source of our ideas and inspiration. Their presentation explained how many works might derive inspiration from our own day-to-day experiences. We also discussed story structure and the composition of a novel.

In the afternoon the publisher Stephen Roxburgh described the publishing process as well as what it takes to get into print. As many authors already know, the process is difficult and time consuming, and Stephen explained why so many authors received rejections.

Overall, the entire conference was inspiring and I especially enjoyed the question and answer sessions, which occurred after each presentation. I met other authors and illustrators who attended, who were intelligent and interesting.