It’s been a while since I wrote a new Craft Thursday post, and I thought it would be fun to compile a list of the tools that help me write.
“Life is not a support system for art–it’s the other way around.” -Stephen King
I have that King quote hanging on my monitor as a reminder that it’s not the trappings of being a writer that make me better, it’s the writing itself. I mention it here because when I was a new writer, I believed that if I had to cool office, the right fancy pen, and the best laptop, I would be a “real writer.” Eventually, I learned that those trappings of success only made me feel like an imposter, so I stopped trying to look like a real author and just focused on being myself, who wrote because it made me happy, and I needed it to feel balanced in my life.
My point is, don’t think you have to run out and get all the things I’m about to list to be successful. Mostly, these are just tools that have made my life easier, not things that I require. In fact, many are necessary now only because I’m busy. I didn’t use a lot of this stuff when I first started out. It was just me on an old laptop at my dining room table. Bottom line, all you need to be a writer is a writing instrument of some sort, a vehicle for those words (screen, paper, receipt, napkin), and the discipline to apply ink to page. Still, toys are fun, so I hope you find some stuff here that makes your life easier.
So here we go:
1. Computer: I used to have an HP that weighed roughly the same as a baby elephant. Then I got a Macbook–a little less heavy but still fairly unwieldy. Both were great for writing. However, I travel a lot for work now, so I needed something portable. I’ve had my Air for four years and just had the battery replaced in the hopes it’ll last a few more. When I’m at home, I hook the Air up to a larger screen on my desk, so I have two screens going. I also use a wireless Mac keyboard, which, when I leave the Air at home and take my iPad instead, I bring along for writing on planes.
2. Headphones: I spend a lot of time writing in cafes and airplanes, so I make sure always to have a pair of headphones on me. I always keep a spare pair of those white Apple headphones (I promise this entire list won’t be Apple products) on me because they’re light and portable. However, my preference is this pair of Bose headphones. I don’t have the noise-canceling ones, but even the basic ones do a good job of blocking noise and creating a sort of cave of music around my head so I can focus. When I’m drafting a novel I listen to playlists I create for that specific book, but sometimes I just listen to whatever strikes my mood that day. However, when I’m revising I either listen to no music or one of those new agey tracks of water running and temple chimes. They help me focus on the more delicate work of making the word not suck. They’re expensive, so I asked for them for Christmas one year. They’re also big, so I sometimes leave them at home in favor of the cheapies.
3. Word Processing Software: I draft using Scrivener. Because I write my discovery drafts out of order, it helps me keep everything organized and allows me to move easily scenes around. The notecard feature also lets me transfer the scene goals from my storyboard into the program so I easily can reference what scenes I need to write next. It also has lots of great bells and whistles for tracking progress and knowing what you’ve done and what’s left to do. However, I don’t find Scrivener that great for revisions, so I usually compile the draft into Word for that stage. Scrivener is about $45, but there’s a free trial.
4. Grammarly: Word’s spell check leaves a lot to be desired. Here’s the thing: I’m juggling grad school with my writing career right now. That means I’m zooming through a lot of words very quickly, which results in some pretty sloppy drafts. I can go over something ten times and swear I’ve found every error, but the minute I hit send, like three typos show up. Luckily, I recently was approached by the folks at Grammarly. They gave me a couple week trial of their premium service in the hope that if I liked it I might mention it here. Well, I’m mentioning it. This week alone, I have used Grammarly to scan three papers and thirty pages of revision. Mind you, I uploaded them after I’d already scanned then with Word’s spell check and read through them multiple times. In each case, Grammarly identified no less than 40 errors. What I like about it is it not only catches typos, it also lets you know if you’re using cliched or overused phrases, passive voice, or if you’re getting too wordy (guilty). So in addition to helping me make sure I’m turning in clean work, it’s also making me more aware of my tics. I don’t use Chrome but if you do, they also have an extension that plugs into the browser.
Now, what you’re essentially doing is uploading your copyrighted works to a website, and that information will end up on a server. Even if you delete the works from your account, they may stay on the server or archive systems for a while. That means that if there’s a security breach, someone could gain access to your words. Unfortunately, this is a reality of the internet age, and you have to decide whether the benefits are worth the risks. But this is the case whether you’re using Grammarly, Google Docs or any other online writer’s tools. Also, an annual premium membership is about $140. That might not be in everyone’s budget, but if you have to edit a lot of stuff it may be worth it. Also, also, remember that no automatic editor is going to be perfect. Ultimately, it’s up to you to make sure your work is clean.
5. Pens! Even though I prefer typing when I write, I have a pen thing. I suspect most writers do. I’m a weird duck because I like a bold blue line, and sometimes it’s hard to find inexpensive pens that I like. Last year, I decided I wanted to start using fountain pens because they make me feel fancy. However, I’m also pretty cheap, and I lose a lot of pens, so I didn’t want to spend a mint. I put out the call and my colleague and friend, Chloe Neill, suggested the Lamy. I now own two. The black pen is a Lamy Safari, and the purple pen is an AL-Star. They write like a dream. The only thing I don’t love is that fountain pens don’t travel well. You can take out the cartridge and put a fresh one in at your destination, but you can’t use them on planes. The Lamy models are about $22-$40 plus the cost of cartridges. I’ve had these for about six months and have had to replace the cartridges on each a couple of times. I use them A LOT, but I also use Paper Mates, Bics, or whatever’s handy all the time. But the fountain pens are my favorite for longer forms of writing.
6. Storyboard. I’m more of a puzzler than a plotter, but I do map out the scenes of my story on a storyboard. Since I’m a visual person, I find having the plot laid out on a storyboard very helpful. This is my current storyboard. I’m getting ready to redo it because I’m starting rewrites on this book. But as you can see I divide the acts into four horizontal rows (Act 2 gets two rows because it’s twice as long as the other acts). I like the board’s wings because it lets me put additional notes or place extraneous scenes when I’m not sure where they’ll end up. Some of my colleagues use different storyboard methods. For example, Vicki Pettersson thinks I’m a crazy person because her storyboards are oriented vertically. Others color coordinate their boards based on POV character or subplot, but I’m just not that organized. At most I’ll have one color for scenes that are done and another for ones I still need to write.
7. Scapple. This software is made by the same people who did Scrivener. It’s a mind-mapping tool, which appeals to my right-brained self. Because each of my Prospero’s War books is based on a different alchemical process, I do a mind map of all the correspondences for each process to help me come up with story ideas. Here’s the Deadly Spells Scapple (mild spoilers ahoy)
8. Meditation. Okay, this is the most woo-woo thing on the list. I started meditating a couple of years ago to help manage stress. I should probably do a whole separate Craft Thursday post on the benefits of meditation for writers. We spend so much time in their heads always thinking, thinking, thinking, that it’s nice to shut the heck up and be in the moment. Also? Meditation helps with focus. I got started meditating by using the Headspace App. It’s free to begin with and provides 10, 10 minute guided sessions to help you learn how to meditate. Andy has a soothing voice, and he has a British accent, so it all feels very important. Once you get through the ten days, you can buy a subscription for the fifteen and twenty-minute meditations. I did this and liked them, but they’re not required. The best thing about meditation is it can be totally self-guided. There are lots of great free apps, podcasts, albums and stuff online. There are also a million different variations that you can try until you see what works best for you. I like Sarah McLean’s stuff. I did a meditation retreat with her a few years ago, and it was fantastic. I don’t meditate every day, but I try to do it often. Sometimes I’ll just put on 10-minute nature soundtrack and focus on my breathing for a bit before I write. It never fails to help me get in the zone fast.
9. Pinterest. A couple of years ago, I started making Pinterest boards for all of my books. In the olden days, like 2009, I used to make poster collages like a kindergartener, except mine had pictures of vampires and stuff. Now I can use Pinterest, which is much easier and doesn’t leave you with Rubber Cement in your hair. There are a lot of side benefits to doing this. First, when your books come out, you can share your boards with readers to show them what your characters and world look like. Second, when you work with a publisher, you can send the board to your designer. Third, when your book gets optioned for TV, you can send the boards to the show runners so they can pitch your books to network execs. Fourth, you can keep interesting links you want to research later for future books all in one place. I’m sure there are others. If you’re visual at all, I highly recommend it. Even if you’re not, it’s probably worth checking out. Here’s the Pinterest board for DIRTY MAGIC.
10. Printer. Writers and trees are natural nemeses. People are all, do everything electronic to save the trees! That’s nice and all. I mean, I like trees. I really do. But I also know that the best way for me to edit a book is to print the whole thing out and have at it with a red pen. This means I need a good printer. I’ve found a few features to be pretty helpful so I’ll mention them now. 1. Ability to print two-sided. This actually saves paper, so suck it, environmentalists. 2. A high page-per-minute print rate. 3. Wireless capabilities (so I can print things from my couch). I currently use a Brother HL5470DW. They cost less than $200 at the office supply store. I’ve had it a year, which means that it’s probably almost obsolete. I also have one of those scanner/copier/color printer abominations, but I hate it because it sucks through color ink like a vampire on a bender. I hate it for printing, but it’s great for quick photocopies or scanning stuff quickly to send to my agent or whatever.
This post went a lot longer than expected, but I hope you’ve found some stuff that might be useful. Again, I don’t NEED any of this. Sometimes it’s nice just to sit down with a cheap disposable pen and a pad of paper under a tree (a nice one that doesn’t hold grudges about you killing all its relatives) and write. But these things make my life easier. Happy writing!