The Process and Tools of Writing

When I first started to write I looked for all the information I could on how other people did it. Things like did they outline? What word processor did they use? Did they use writing software? Here’s how I do it.

How do you write? To write, you sit in a chair and type words on a page. That’s it. Although that sounds flippant, it’s not. A writer has to be disciplined—perhaps the most disciplined person of all. We sit at home where it is very easy to be distracted. What’s on the internet? Maybe I should check my email. You will find yourself doing everything but writing. But you have to sit down and do it. Some other writer whose name escapes me said they used the AIC technique: Ass in Chair. So, if you want to be a writer, get some implement that will make marks on a page, real or virtual, and start putting one word in front of another.

Where to write? Someone else said that all the black turtlenecks and cafes in the world are not going to make you a writer. Writing is a solitary undertaking that needs to be done in isolation. You may envision yourself sitting like Hemingway at a Parisian cafe' writing, but you will never get anything done there. Stay home, write, then go out for coffee. Certainly observe and take notes while you are out, but the honest to God grunt work has to be done in solitude.

Do I outline? Yes, sort of. I find the task of writing a novel to be so complex that it is necessary to plan it out to a great extent before I start writing. Some people have a very complex system for it, saying they outline for several months, or a year. I don’t work that way. Before I start writing I usually have an idea how the novel starts and how it might end, and some ideas (perhaps) about what goes on in the middle. So I will make an outline to the extent that I know these things. I use a program called FreeMind Mind Map that is free. It is a great program because it is very easy to use, intuitive even, and very powerful. It is sort of a brainstorming tool. I start to write the outline, and brainstorm what happens. It helps get the creative juices flowing. One great thing about that program is that you can copy the outline from the Mind Map format, which is very graphic, to an outline form in a document.

When I start writing I follow the outline, but I am not chained to it. I often will discard an idea that seemed great when making the outline, but which sounds lame when I finally start to write.

There will inevitably come a time when I am writing outside the outline, or I have exhausted the outline. That’s okay. I sometimes go back and add more outline so I can figure out what is going to happen next. I also add ideas, which the software lets you mark as ideas, that may or may not end up in the novel.

Word processor wise, I use Atlantis. It costs about 35 bucks, but it’s worth it. It is much better than other software that is free or as cheap, and at least as good as very expensive software. You should give it a try. One thing I love about it is that it has sounds. I grew up using a typewriter, and I love to hear the sound of the keys hitting the page. I don’t know why, but my wife says she thinks it soothes me. Don’t know, but I dig it. The program also makes it possible to save a file as an ebook, and as html. It has a full screen feature for those of you who like a blank page. The support at Atlantis is extremely responsive. I mean to the extent of actually changing the software responsive.

For a long time I used a free program called Q10, which is great, too, but it is severely limited, and there is no support for it. The big thing with Q10 was that it had typewriter sounds and a full screen mode that did not have any distracting menu bars. But Atlantis has all the same features, and is a very powerful full blown word processor that is vastly superior, and at $35 is nearly free.

New writers are often interested in novel writing software, I know I was. I have tried them, and there are some very good and powerful programs out there for not much money. One free program I tried was Y-Writer. It is extremely useful and easy to use. My only beef with it is that it does not put out a document in a format that agents tend to like. I have to go through and do a huge amount of reformatting. With Atlantis, I write in the format the agents will expect to see. That might not matter to you—give it a try.

There are a plethora of other programs that I am sure are quite useful, but they were too complicated for me. For example, Scrivener (which is for Mac, but there is now a Windows Beta version) and Writer’s Cafe'. I think they are great, but for me, simple was better. You can try them free to see what you think.

What about editing? I work on a book until it is as good as I can get it. I type onto a computer, then print it out. Sometimes I print bits of it as I go, and sometimes I wait until the end, and then print the whole thing out. Either way, you must sooner or later print the thing out and read it and edit it that way. It’s the only way. I find that after about three revisions I feel like I’m beating my head against the wall.

Should you hire an editor? I did. Unless you have written a few books and have a real handle on grammar, punctuation, flow, character, and the whole kit and kaboodle, you need not only an editor, but a person who will look at the whole thing. I think your chances of getting an agent are slim if you don’t. Even if you self publish, you need to have it reviewed by an editor and writing coach. And believe me, it shows. I looked at one self-published book where none of the sentences were more that about five words. You can’t read that shit—it’s more like an outline of a story. A decent editor would have saved that person, and perhaps put out something that was publishable. As it was, though, it was unreadable.

How do you become a better writer? Write more. Get criticism and instruction, but in the end the real teacher is writing. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. When I first started to do it I felt like I had rocks for hands. After a while, though, it flows. Not all of it is good. Hemingway said that for every page of good writing he puts out, he has a hundred bad. The trick is that the hundred bad pages end up in the trash.