The Technology of a Writer

Memoir MondaysThe other day I was thinking about my writing process and I started thinking about how it has changed and improved over time, mostly due to the technology available to me.

I started writing back in the third grade; our teacher assigned a creative writing project that also involved creating your own cover for the story, and I had so much fun with it that I wanted to keep doing it. Back then (I’m really not as old as I’m making myself sound, I swear) technology was much different. Home computers were not yet very common, so I did all my writing by hand. I was actually pretty picky about my tools too. There were certain pens I had to have, and I couldn’t use any kind of notebook that didn’t fold all the way back in the middle because I couldn’t stand writing on one side of the page while the other half of the book dangled all over the place. In those days I would write for hours – at home, at school, at my grandparents’ house, in the car, sitting on the back step. I didn’t need much. Just the write kind of pen and the right kind of notebook.

Somewhere along the line – I don’t really remember when exactly – my parents picked me up a typewriter. That was super-sweet, because I could actually make my stories look half-way professional, although it really slowed me down a lot. Remember, computers as an every-single-person-has-one device didn’t really exist yet, so typing was a foreign process for me. I still did most of my writing with pen and paper because I was much faster that way, and then I’d type everything out later to make it look nicer.

Sometime between the fifth and sixth grades our elementary school got their first computer. It sat out in the main hallway between the highest-grade classrooms and you had to get permission from your teacher to use it. There was very little on it at the time – a few educational games, mostly – but I loved using it because it had a word processor. I’d begun to get a little better at typing at this point, so I would load up the 3.5″ floppy disk (oops, there’s my age coming out) and type away whenever I got the chance. It felt super-professional and high-tech to me at the time, to be able to carry around this little plastic disk that had digital copies of my stories on it. I was hardcore.

Eventually we got our first home computer as well. That was a huge deal for a number of reasons, but also because I could now do all that story-typing from the comfort of my own home. Like at the school, I used Microsoft Word for my writing. It was the olden days (ha ha) so Word was pretty much the only word processor that existed, at least as far as my pre-teen self was concerned. Bit by bit I filled up that floppy disk with my writing, most of it the kind of stuff that would be absolutely mortifying to read nowadays.

For a few years I fell out of writing. When I would write it would mostly be in notebooks, and mostly as a way to keep my brain busy during ridiculously boring classes. By the time I hit college I’d really gotten back into it, and although I still loved to write by hand, I needed to manage my time a little better. I’d learned to type properly in high school, and could do so at a pretty respectable speed, so using a computer for my writing was the obvious choice. But what program to use? By then there were tons of options. Somewhere along the line when I’d been busy with teenager things, Microsoft Word had gained a stigma for being the worst thing a “real” writer could use. I never really understood why, but since I wanted to be a “real” writer I started looking into the other options. I tried out a number of things, but the one that sticks out in my mind was yWriter. I believe I found it via a “technology” thread in the NaNoWriMo forums, and I used it religiously for quite a while. It was one of the first programs I ever saw that allowed you to organize a story into sections, like scenes, and the main reason I really liked it was that it could be run off of portable storage. In other words, I could load the program and my story files onto a USB drive and just pop it into any computer I happened to have access to. At the time that was an awesome deal because I didn’t yet have a laptop that I could carry around with me wherever I went.

Of course, getting a laptop was a huge turning point. yWriter on a drive was usable, but it still relied on there being a computer wherever I was going. Once I had a laptop I could just pack it up and take it wherever I wanted to. I could officially write anywhere, so long as there was power or my battery held up. In the early years of that first laptop I tried several other word processors aimed at writers. There were some I liked but none I loved, and often I actually found myself reverting back to Microsoft Word, or the free copycat, Open Office. I organized and reorganized my files often, trying to find the program and the setup that worked best for me. In the early stages of “Nowhere to Hide” I was still using Word, and it was absolutely painful because I’d have to manually scour page by page whenever I was looking for a certain scene.

For a while I also tried writing on a Samsung tablet. I liked the tablet; I’d really wanted one because they seemed so neat and portable and easy to deal with. All of that was mostly true, but I found that trying to write novels on it was a miserable process. There were no good apps that I liked (at least not free ones, and I wasn’t paying through the nose for something that I might not have even ended up liking), and though my Bluetooth keyboard is handy, it’s not very ergonomic for writing for long periods. Couple that with the fact that the WordPress app worked about as well as a rock against the head, and I eventually just came to the conclusion that using a tablet to write was not for me.

And so we come to my current situation. I’ve been using my laptop religiously for quite a while now, and the program that I eventually settled in on is Scrivener. At first I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to use Scrivener because it has the ability to be extremely complicated. However, I eventually fell in love with it, and I deeply appreciate the fact that it has the integration to be able to format your manuscript for you, in multiple print and e-book formats. It has definitely made my writing easier and more streamlined, and it went miles in helping to make the self-publishing process less confusing and painful. This setup is as close as I’ve ever gotten to perfection for my process, with one small caveat: my 17″ laptop is just too darn big. Don’t get me wrong; I love the big screen when it comes to watching shows or browsing the internet, but when it comes to traveling around and writing it’s just too clunky and hefty. When traveling back and forth across the country it takes up almost half of the weight of my carry-on, and it’s almost impossible to use on a plane because it is larger than the table tray. This is a minor complaint, I suppose, but someday when I’ve got some disposable cash I hope to get a secondary laptop that’s just for writing and blogging, and on that day I’ll get something a lot lighter and more compact and thus complete my perfect setup.

Just the Essentials

A reminder: This post courtesy of Julie Jarnagin’s 101 Blog Post Ideas for Writers.

52. Tools every writer needs

Writing doesn’t seem like a profession/hobby that requires a lot of equipment, but it can actually get quite tool-heavy depending on what kind of writer you are. Every writer has their own preferences for writing tools, but here are a few that I personally believe should be must-haves for every writer:

A nice notebook and pen
Even if you’re a typing-only kind of writer, sometimes it is very useful to have a notebook and pen in your metaphorical toolbox. For one thing, sometimes you may be somewhere where you can’t have a computer, but you could still scribble out scenes via pen and paper. Also, sometimes a computer program just can’t handle the thoughts, ideas, and plans you want to document. And beside those points, sometimes it is just extremely soothing and peaceful to write manually by the light of the sun or a soft lamp, rather than the harsh, technological glow of a computer screen.

Computer software designed for writers
Microsoft Word is not a writing program. You can write in it, for sure, but it was designed with essays and business documents in mind, not manuscripts. Every writer who chooses to write on a computer should have software that was designed with their needs in mind. I personally use Scrivener for Windows, and absolutely love it to death as it is so flexible and fun to use, but if you’d rather not shell out the cash for writing software, there are plenty of free options out there such as yWriter.

A quiet place to work
Not a tool, technically, but necessary none-the-less. Lots of people can write under duress, with noisy kids and/or pets running around them, or while sitting on a city bus, but being able to squirrel yourself away into a quiet place sometimes is absolutely essential. Sometimes you need a moment to yourself to think without distraction, and sometimes you need it to take a break and relax for a few minutes so your brain can work again later.

– A security blanket
Okay, not a literal security blanket, but I firmly believe that every writer needs something (or several somethings) to get them in the mood and through the process. For myself, my “security blanket” has become hot tea or cocoa. David’s Tea is the best. I just can’t seem to get myself to sit down and write (or edit) without a hot, yummy drink beside me, and it definitely helps keep me calm and focused on my work.

Those are my essentials. Anyone else care to share theirs?